How my family turned me into a 90s cliche (and why it was the best thing ever)
Okay, here’s the scene: I’m about 12, I think, and I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night. I see a light under my parents’ bathroom door, and apparently having no regard for privacy, I go in there to see who’s up at 3 a.m. It’s my mom, sitting on the toilet, reading. But it’s not what you think! The lid was down, her pants were up, yet there she sat, so absorbed in The Firm that she didn’t even notice I had come in until I said something, startling her.
She'd been sitting there for almost two hours. My parents weren’t bookworms at all, and I’d never seen this kind of reading before, where a person’s face doesn’t so much say, “Hm, this is really interesting,” as “If you want to take this book from me, you’re going to have to surgically remove it from my hands.”
I was a different story. Reading was one of my favorite things to do as a kid, so I was no stranger to the magic of being pulled into someone else’s imagination and taken on an adventure. My parents let me take books into restaurants all the time; I was an only child and couldn’t be bothered with boring adult conversation while we waited for our food to arrive.
It was fun to pretend to be in the Babysitters Club or some other equivalent, but this clearly seemed like something else. My immediate reaction was “I want that,” which I more or less said right in that bathroom. And my mom was like, “Sorry, this isn’t for someone your age.” Rude.
I was so jealous of that experience, because I suddenly realized that the books I was reading for school weren’t cutting it.
Why didn’t I just sneak the book away after she was done with it? For one, I was a goody-two-shoes and usually did what I was told. But more importantly, she had borrowed the book from her sister, who’d borrowed it from my uncle. It made such a theft more complicated.
However, maybe a year later, she came to my room one day, handed me a fat, hardcover book, and said “You can read this one, it has a kid in it.” It was The Client.
Those books are all a blur to me now — because I ended up devouring the first eight John Grisham novels over the next few years — but I’m pretty confident The Client wasn’t exactly a romp through a field of gumdrops and daisies. Like people were definitely trying to murder that kid. But okay, it wasn’t as risque as The Firm, nor do I remember having as much trouble understanding details about corporate law.
But at last the gateway had been opened to me! And I took to it immediately, that rush of turning page after page, of not being able to bear to stop for the amount of time it would take to move to a more comfortable seat than a toilet.
I’m not saying they’re the best books I’ve ever read. Who knows if I’d even like them now, at this completely different stage of my life, and with a lot more reading under my belt? But that’s not the point. I’ll always love them because they taught me what it feels like to crave the next moment you can sit down, shut out the world, and hold on tight to whatever you find enthralling, whether that’s a roller coaster ride through the American justice system, the angst of a sweeping Victorian-era romance, or a step-by-step account of the invention of the vacuum cleaner. (I don’t know your life.)
My memories of those books are also so fond and so unique because they were a rare sort of bond I didn’t often share with my mom, where she treated me as an equal instead of the young teenager I was. They’re one of the few things I remember that put a spark in her eye as she sank into the early stages of serious illness.
They brought me closer to her two sisters and my uncle, too, who were also onboard the thriller train and essentially shaped my taste for me. I remember so clearly the afternoon Uncle Steve took me back to his office and said “I’ve got a new one for you.” Sometimes his voice took on an unmistakable and endearing tone of self-satisfaction, and this was one of those moments. Without having ever heard of this novel, I trusted his opinion completely; a gleeful voice inside me whispered yesssss. He presented me with David Baldacci’s Absolute Power. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t lent to anyone else yet, so it was extra cool.
Man, I loved that book, and I loved that he knew I would. It was our thing. When he died a couple of years ago, that’s the one I went looking for among his shelves of thrillers. My aunt and I couldn’t find it, but we did come across something better: the weathered copy of The Client that got the ball rolling all those years ago.
My legal thriller habit trickled away the summer after my mom died. College prep, social obligations, and frankly, a gaping hole in my mental wellbeing lead me elsewhere. For many years, it seemed like that life-changing genre would be forever protected in that last bubble of unblemished contentment in my life.
I’m happy to report I’ve since picked them up again, though so far I’ve kept Grisham and Baldacci preserved in my past. It would just feel... off to read them alone without Mom and Steve. Still, when I find myself sinking into the heart-pounding trance of a gritty page-turner, it feels like returning to a home I haven’t known in quite some time. And it’s awesome.
Now your turn: Did a particular book or author change the way you experienced reading? Which one? Hit me with a comment below.