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Our Reading Lives

I Didn’t Become a Reader Until I Was 16, and That’s Fine

Arvyn Cerézo

Senior Contributor

Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find them on and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

Unlike most bookworms, I didn’t grow up in a reading household.

I was a small-town boy from a low-income background; reading materials weren’t really accessible to me at the time. I swear that I was the sole member of the family who read. My parents, my siblings, and even my relatives haven’t touched a single book in their lives, well, aside from the Bible. It was only when I went to college at 16 when I got introduced to reading.

I remember that I noticed a college friend reading a paperback and got fascinated by what it was. So that night, in the height of ebook’s popularity, I purchased a copy to test the waters. And you know what? I think that’s the biggest pivotal moment in my life. But like a secret, I was aghast that no one let me in on this early on. I felt like I was robbed of a leisure pursuit I would have loved as a lonely child. I felt like I’ve missed out on all the fun. Still, reading my first book was a big eureka moment for me.

So at the time, I read all the stuff that would fit in my smartphone. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Hunger Games series. The Lucky One. Divergent. All of John Green’s novels. And when young adult novels boomed in 2014, I gobbled them all up. It was my raison d’être: I stayed up all night to finish all those buzzworthy series. And because I fell fast and hard and made my whole personality around books, I even went to plenty of book signing events, traveling 200 kilometers away from home just to have my paperbacks signed.

But later, when I read all the YA and literary fiction novels that my brain could handle, I felt like there was something amiss. I realized then that I missed out on reading the “essential” classics. I have a confession: I don’t generally know the plots of Disney fairy tales, Brothers Grimm’s stories, most of literary canons, and other classic children’s books. And whenever they come up in pop culture, or when a fellow bookworm, who grew up in a reading household and was probably read to by their parents, casually mentions them to me, I go blank. I know I’m not one bit obtuse, but I just didn’t have the opportunity to read all of them.

After realizing that I read many contemporary novels but still not happy about my literary know-how, I tried to “fill in the gaps” and read the classics from different time periods, as if my life depended on it. I had to know what I was missing and overcome the FOMO. I had to be in the know and appear like I knew something when someone mentioned this character or that book or which book a TV series came from or the literary inspiration behind the latest Netflix film.

Still, what I read was not enough. Like, for instance, when a date wants a tête-à-tête about Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones or Kafka or some classic book written by a dead white man, I don’t have the faintest idea what they’re about. In those moments, I wish I was well-read enough to be able to just pull everything from my head. I wish I was like other bookworms who had had a massive head start since they were young. But obviously, my experience was vastly different.

So at some point, I stopped doing all that, as it felt like reading was a chore I have to tick off. It stopped being the fun thing I used to love. Still, reading books that late gave me more brain capacity than I would have as a child. I guess it was a benefit in disguise in some way.

Reader, if you’re a “late starter” like me — whether you’re in your ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etc. — and you feel like you haven’t read enough or that you haven’t grown up in a reading household, I want you to know that it doesn’t make you less of a reader. No matter where you are in your life right now, it’s never too late to read something. It’s not a competition, nor something that you should feel insecure about. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, as long as reading brings joy to your life.

Read whatever you like, be that genre fiction, such as sci-fi or erotica, or some literary title no one has heard of. Read because you love doing it, not because you feel like you have to do it, just as I did. There’s time. Take your time.

As for me, I am forever thankful to that friend who somewhat introduced me to reading. I only started at 16 (and I’m 26 now). This will be a lifelong affair.