Our Reading Lives

The Unexpected Gifts of Reading

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

It’s been a month since my dog passed away.

It was unexpected, and it broke my heart.

We knew she was sick, but I didn’t think it was anything serious. And then suddenly, during a scheduled vet appointment, we were told she had to be put down that day.

Five days before that was her last good day, though I didn’t know it at the time. And I owe that good day, that bright spot in this season of grief, to a book series I picked up for a mindless read.

Last year was my year of being obsessed with the manga series Laid-Back Camp. It’s like if ASMR was a book. It follows a group of high school girls in a school club dedicated to camping. They plan camping trips, admire and save up for camping gear, work part-time job to afford said gear, and try new foods (and hot springs) on their camping excursions. It’s absolutely adorable, and completely conflict free. It was a cozy, comforting read, and I sped through all 12 volumes. (Volume 13 is out in April!)

After I finished all the available volumes  — and talked about it to everyone I know, and wrote about it in every Book Riot context possible — I still couldn’t get enough of this iyashikei (“healing”) story, so I started watching the anime. At the time of writing, I’ve finished that, too, and I’m eagerly awaiting season three.

While watching the anime, I was struck again by its depiction of New Year’s. I had noticed it in the manga, but it was even more striking in its on-screen adaptation. The main characters and their teacher bundle up in a van together before dawn, driving to a mountain. They meet crowds of other people there before sunrise, including a lot of families, and there are snacks and other goodies for sale. They ascend up the mountain on a cable car, and after breathless anticipation, they watch the first sunrise of the new year as the light spills over the mountaintop. Elsewhere, another of their friends, solo camping, watches the sun rise through a torii on a beach.

I had been intrigued by this scene in the manga, but the anime showed the sunrise in colour and in action, which made it even more memorable. Some googling suggested that in Japan, it’s more common to celebrate New Year’s by getting up early and watching the sun rise in a scenic location, usually with family, than it is to stay up until midnight, which is the North American tradition I’m most familiar with. (Disclaimer: this is a simplification of a cultural celebration that I’m not well acquainted with, so I don’t expect a quick google was enough to capture the nuances!)

That idea sounded wonderful to me. I’ve never been a big fan of staying up to ring in the new year. Staying up late makes me grouchy, and it means I’ll likely spend the first day of the new year lethargic and, well, still grouchy. So I suggested to my roommate and dog co-parent that we adopt this tradition ourselves, at least for a day. I looked up the best places near our house to watch the sun rise. (Turns out, it’s the eastern part of the island. I probably should have been able to figure that out.) I picked out a park, and we made a plan to bring the dogs there dark and early January 1st.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really expect us to follow through on it. It would require my roommate wake up early on a weekend, which is a lot to ask. But we did.

I got ready before dawn and woke him up, and we packed the dogs into the car and drove up to the viewpoint. It turned out to be a tiny park, not much bigger than our backyard, nestled between some houses and looking out over the ocean. We were a little late getting there — Google has misled me about the time the sun rose — so the sun was already peeking up over the horizon when we got there.

It was still a beautiful sight, though, and our dogs, Lola and Devi, were happy to sniff around. Because it was fairly closed in, we let Devi off leash to do some laps and let off some steam. Lola is rarely let off leash, because she doesn’t didn’t have great recall, but she had been a little slower in the last few weeks. She was wearing a sweater, because she had also lost some weight and got cold quickly. We decided she probably wasn’t going to sprint off anywhere, so we let her off leash in a new place for the first time in a long time.

She always loved climbing rocks, and she began scampering up them to explore like she was a young dog again. We watched the sun rise and the dogs wander, and it felt like the perfect way to welcome a new year. It was nice to see Lola so active. We had her vet appointment in five days, and they’d tell us what was wrong, and we’d fix it, and she’d have so many more adventures like this.

We weren’t there for long. Maybe a half hour. But it was beautiful, watching the sun ascend over the ocean. We were the only ones there, our little pack.

When we leashed up the dogs and brought them back to the car, I couldn’t stop saying, “I’m so glad we did this.” In less than a week, I’d be stunned that the dog who had been scampering up those rocks so happily was gone. Untreatable. They would tell us that it was the “kind option” to let her go. So we fed her a cheeseburger, and then we let her go.

I haven’t handled this with a lot of grace. I’ve learned the definition of bargaining, and I’ve blamed myself for not being psychic, for not acting on information I didn’t have. I’ve played out a dozen different scenarios where this went differently, and I’ve blamed people who probably don’t deserve it.

But I am so grateful for her last good day.

That day of her getting to be a happy, curious dog again in her last week of life is precious. It brings me comfort when I feel guilty about how much she must have been hurting without us realizing it. It brings me comfort when I start thinking about how much I still wanted to do with her, how many more good days she deserved (all of them).

And there was no reason we got to have that shining, perfect day.

I don’t know where I heard about Laid-Back Camp. I’m not sure what made me want to read it. It was a completely casual reading choice like any other. But if I had never picked up that first book, I wouldn’t have had that day with Lola. And a heartbreaking situation would be just that little bit worse.

I’ve written before about how the books that changed my life the most were all pretty random choices, and they’re not necessarily my favourite books. But whatever the reason they ended up in my hands, they altered my life forever.

That is one of the gifts of reading. It introduces you to different worlds, different opinions, different thought processes, different traditions. It lets you explore hundreds of people’s lives, however briefly. And every once in a while, you stumble on something that changes you. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s sudden. Sometimes it’s a new point of view, sometimes it’s a new hobby. But you’re never the same again.

Books always leave us changed. We dive into someone else’s mind for a while, and when we surface, there’s always something left behind. It may not be conscious, it may not stick around forever, but it leaves an impression.

I’m grateful for the unexpected books that have pointed me in the right direction. I may not have a lot of space for gratitude right now, but I do have that.

I am a different person because I read, in both obvious and undetectable ways. I look forward to my next serendipitous read that guides me to a moment of beauty. And I hope your reading journey leads you there as well.

To Lola, thank you for being the best reading buddy anyone could ask for. I miss you, and I love you.

a photo of Lola, a medium-sized black and white dog who is walking down a hill toward the camera, with her tongue hanging out and one paw in the air. She looks happy to see the person taking the picture, and her tail is blurry from wagging. A large black dog is in the background.