In My Own Words: My life as a reader

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Wait! You read the books!” 

That quote was an answer to a comment I made about the books I review for the paper. It’s not the first time someone was surprised by that I actually read the books: my other friend thought I just skimmed them. I confess to periodically fast-reading a book (not exactly skimming, but close), but that is actually very rare. I’ve always been a reader, but the number of books I read increased when I lost the last of what I refer to as my “normal hearing.” 

Normal hearing was when the world sounded the way my brain remembered it, something my hearing aids could not reproduce. I’ve written about losing the ability to really hear music (especially recorded music), but I haven’t written as much about the other changes that came with that loss. That’s because, even before my final hearing loss, I was no longer able to go to the movies or the theater. Although I’d been a big fan of both, I began missing far too much for the experience to be a pleasant one.

When my hearing loss occurred, I was grateful that I already loved to read. Not only could I still get absorbed in a story, but while reading, I was able to ignore the awful ear ringing that replaced my ability to hear. (Not being able to hear was actually extremely noisy and those sounds were unpleasant and nerve wracking.) The sounds have not disappeared, but my hearing aids and CI bring in enough stimulation to my ears to replace them, although they sometime appear if the world gets too quiet. 

What I still could do was watch TV, at least shows that had closed captions. My use of captioning began before my last hearing loss since otherwise I missed too much of the dialogue. But once my normal hearing disappeared, I was completely dependent on it. Even my hearing aids didn’t really help. Before getting my cochlear implant, I usually watched the TV without sound or without my hearing aids, which meant it was not a particularly relaxing activity. With my cochlear implant, I do watch more TV, but still spend most of my evenings reading. 

I read a variety of genres, but read each of them for the same reason: those rare moments when you become so lost in what is happening that when you lift your eyes from the book, you barely recognize the world around you. That also used to happen when I went to the movies and the theater, or visited a museum and saw a painting or sculpture that helped me transcend my life. 

But I don’t need those moments to enjoy a book. Fiction can make me laugh, cry or reconsider how I think about the world. I also find some nonfiction incredibly exciting, especially the ones that offer me new ideas to ponder. In fact, I will periodically read something to deliberately challenge my thinking. One of my favorite things in the world is to discuss an idea or a book with someone who interprets the work differently. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Torah study: I never know when someone is going to offer insights I would otherwise have never considered. Sometimes a friend radically interprets a story differently than I did: even if I retain my original interpretation, I love the challenge of being forced to consider the work from a different perspective. 

The bottom line, though, is that I love stories. That’s why I read more fiction than nonfiction. That’s also why I used to go to the movies and theater: there I could see stories acted out before my eyes. But books – at least, hard copies of books – allow me to share the stories I love. I see this as an extension of the introduction my parents gave me to books. I remember my mom telling me about stories she loved and my reading them (although we did disagree on a few favorites). When I reached my tween years, my father began to share the books he loved when he was young (although older than I was at the time). That’s why the works of Eric Marie Remarque became such a formative influence in my life. It also helped me bond with my father at a time when some fathers begin to withdraw from their daughters.

What makes this even more amazing is that my older brother, Richard, who is also a big reader, and I had difficulty learning to read. My mother decided that we were not being taught correctly and bought a book about teaching children to read phonetically, one she lent to many others over the years. My mom joked that once Richard and I started reading, we never stopped. I can’t really argue with that. If I don’t have a book to read, I’ll read whatever is around, even if I normally wouldn’t be interested in it. I don’t mind if a doctor is running late because I usually have a book with me and look at the wait as extra reading time.

I know that not everyone loves to read. For some, especially those who have a learning disability, it’s not a relaxing activity. I understand the desire to do something else – from listening to music to watching TV to creating something with your hands. But my default activity is sitting with a book in hand (I still prefer to read print copies, even when I need a book pillow to hold them) lost in whatever story/world the author presents. My vision of a heaven is a library that contains all the books that have been published and which will continue to receive new books as they are written. If there are no discussion groups already organized, I can foresee another activity to keep me busy. 

So, yes, I read the books I review. I also read books that aren’t for review. After listening to people talk about bucket lists, I’ve come up with one of my own: I want to read all the books I have on my not-for-the-paper piles (well, really bookcases). That should keep me busy for a very long time!