The Rebellious Act of Reading

Creative Non-Fiction by Jesse Pineiro

Being lit on fire was a low point for me. There was a flash of light and a sudden stench of burning hair. Black and red blisters rose and fell on my flesh. In the freeze frame moments of crisis I watched them bubble with a strange detachment before registering that this flesh was my own, and that it hurt a lot. I flopped to the ground and put myself out in the dirt. 

The lessons we are meant to learn from moments such as these are sometimes not immediately obvious. I can look back on that morning and say that burning books is one of the most offensive acts human beings are capable of. I can look back and realize that my attempt to burn Dostoevsky’s The Gambler in a barbecue was indicative of just how out of touch I was with my own reality. I can see now that there is a life path for us all, and the universe does not allow much deviation without hard reminders. At the time, though, I only remember feeling infinitely sorry for myself. I had been defeated yet again and, after causing me months of frustration, Dostoevsky had had the last laugh.

“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”

I understand now that for me literature has always alternated between providing a window to the world and an occasional glance in the mirror. The window it gave me caused me to seek out something beyond the rural log cabin where I grew up; it made hitchhiking in Egypt and being lit on fire in Brazil more inevitable than surprising. The mirror allowed me to see myself in a wider context, not only framed by things I had actually experienced but also by the things I knew I wanted to. 

I started to read as a form of escape. Not from anything really horrible — my life was not so bad – but simply from what I saw as the monotony of the farm. For every Saturday spent picking rocks or digging ditches there were always a few moments at the end of the day when I could journey back in time reading about the Norse legends, or travelling the Amazon with the conquistadores. These small trips into fantasy perpetuated themselves, and I was soon reading anything I could get my hands on, from the book version of the movie Willow to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I was hooked. My parents, while not really seeing the point of such extreme bookishness, were fairly supportive. I remember my dad telling me a few times that I would go blind if I kept reading so much, but I like to think he was joking. 

These windows into other realities were what kept me going through a very introverted and at times isolated childhood. The lives of others, infinitely more profound, meaningful, and interesting than my own, assured me that while I might be bored, it didn’t have to be permanent. 

When I was fourteen a carload of my friends drove off a cliff into a lake. I remember sitting on the road looking down at the oil that rose from the cold depths of the water. I sat there for hours and stared at that oily spot. I wondered how long it was possible to live under the water. When the police divers came there was a moment of pure magic as my friend Jeff was pulled to the surface by the frogman who held his hand as though leading him to safety. Jeff’s eyes were open and his long blond hair was streaming behind him. But then, they lifted him out of the water and put him in the boat, and I saw that he was stiff and unmoving. His limbs were permanently fixed in the act of flying, but there was no grace left in him at all.

I read Noam Chomsky in Iraq. Huddled in a freezing concrete hut with the Kurdish militia,

To make me feel better about things, my mom gave me her copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. This has become one of my favourite books, and the lines she highlighted for me had a big effect. 

“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?” 

That was the moment when literature started to be more than escapism and turned into the actual tangible means of escape. I wanted to break the pattern of small town parties and drinking that I was stuck in. I realized that if it had been me in that lake, I would have felt pretty silly about most of my priorities up to that point. I had looked in the mirror for the first time and didn’t like what I saw.

That moment was the beginning of a move towards something different for me and although I have deviated many times from the blueprint that has slowly formed along with me, I feel like I can always mark my progress by the books I am reading, or in the case of Dostoevsky, the books I am failing to read. 

Literature has accompanied me all over the world. In Lima, I read Hunter S. Thompson’s story about a rich British businessman driving golf balls off the top of a high-rise into the slums below. That story showed me the brutality of Imperialism and the resentment towards it, and when I walked in the streets after reading that, I walked with different eyes and saw a different world. In Paris, I was taken to a gigantic bookshop near the Saint Michel metro. A friend of mine, who made his living by stealing, took me there. He asked me what books I would like and then told me to go wait on the corner. He explained the blind spots in the store, which employees were less invested in their jobs, and how to get past the alarm system at the door. I later used this knowledge to get a job in the same shop as a security guard. I read Noam Chomsky in Iraq. Huddled in a freezing concrete hut with the Kurdish militia, I choked down my knowledge and narrowed my perspectives, drinking toasts to the wise and powerful George Bush, and the eternal suffering of Saddam Hussein. 

Literature has deposited me in many awkward places. There is a kind of comfort in certainties, but literature in my experience encourages discomfort. Unlike television, which delivers a literal narrative directly to the brain, literature has the ability to use negative space, space that we are free to fill with whatever makes sense to us at the time. 

Reading about something and physically experiencing it are not the same, but for me at least, one has always encouraged the other. It occurs to me that knowledge is self-perpetuating.

For proof of this I only have to look at my latest awkward situation: I am going to college now. I never planned this, but it seems like the situations I have been faced with, the stories I have read, the myths, adventures and political opinions, have prepared me well. We talk about politics here and I have something to say because of the things I have read and the things I have done. We are encouraged to think critically and I can do that, not because it will get me an “A” but because it has been my mechanism for survival from the day I first picked up a book, and I don’t have a choice anymore. We talk about stress and self care and I can keep that in perspective because Kahlil Gibran taught me how to conceptualize death. 

Reading books was my first act of rebellion. Literature has enabled me to be contrary, to be spontaneous and to be right. It has burned me and it has saved me, and I know that when I ask myself why I study literature the real answer is because I have no choice. My life is not possible without it.