My first-line of defence against reality was to read everything I could. Whether I understood it, whether I should be reading and sometimes, whether I liked it.
Of course, I was escaping. There is no embarrassment in that. There is, in fact, much more of a twisted sense of pride, as if I had secretly managed to find an exit that only I knew about from the problems that I also kept to myself.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the only people against escaping are the ones holding the keys. I’ve always been down for that.
Here’s how I escaped when I was much younger: Every night, I’d grab the book from under my bed and, armed with a blue flashlight, I would read for hours under the blankets.
One day, the batteries died and had to turn on my bedroom lights, which at three in the morning attracted some unwanted attention from my mom, and ended up with me finally being caught with an outrageously big volume of Don Quixote de La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes.
I believe I was 11 when I became the first child in the world to be grounded for reading a book.
Yet, fiction is more than a simple getaway. It was how I learned things, how I experienced other points of view, and how I developed empathy. At some point, it also became how I learned languages, how I got better at expressing myself or at using excerpts from my favourite books to do the job for me whenever I couldn’t express myself.
Still, and with increasing frequency over the years, the questions I heard the most were variations of “why waste your time reading these made-up stories?”
I never get it, because I knew from a very young age, as I know now, that things don’t always need to happen to be true.
This is the thing about reading fiction. It gives you secret superpowers by letting you see life through other eyes, feel an awful lot of emotions, care about other people, and go to different places. And it inspires you somehow, dealing with the kind of truth that doesn’t need to be supported by something as trivial as reality.
I wouldn’t be in Toronto today if I wasn’t a compulsive reader from a very young age. It helped me develop my English skills. Reading also helped because I lacked the imagination required to make this kind of decision to travel 7,934 kilometres from Belo Horizonte in Brazil to Toronto.
Fiction books, especially fantasy ones, have far less to do with dragons than with the lesson that they can be slain. Sci-fi books have found their way through the gap between reality and fiction more times than anyone ever expected, and even antidepressants have Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to thank.