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A bookworm’s guide to metamorphosis

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MARCH 20, 2023

For me, growing up as an extremely shy only child — an unfortunate combination, I know — was marked by two things: books and the online community of everything related to them.

From the time I learned to read, I have always had a book on hand. Whether it be at the dinner table during family gatherings or surreptitiously hidden under my classroom desk, a plastic-clad library book would follow my every step. Fictional characters couldn’t hop out of the pages and give me a pity laugh whenever I said something slightly unorthodox or bear witness to me horribly mispronouncing the word “puma” for an embarrassingly long time. While my fellow classmates had older siblings who prepared them for the harsh realities of secondary school, I learned the ins and outs of the world through the stories my beloved books held. 

The first time I grew truly invested in a collection of words on paper was when I devoured the Harry Potter series at age eight. My elementary school self fixated on those books with a fiery passion. What could be cooler to an awkward 8 year old than another socially awkward teenager being whisked away from a life of mundanity to magical boarding school? From the moment I read “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” I asked myself the same question every time I had to make a decision: What would Hermione Granger do? Perhaps it’s a good thing that my little brain fixated on Hermione Granger of all things. Where I had previously been too timid to answer questions in class, I now jumped to raise my hand. Because, even if Hermione was deemed massively annoying by her classmates, at least she could speak for herself. 

The young adult fiction that I read at too young an age did more than make me a weird Hermione Granger replica. I now can admit that those seven novels shaped the way I view human connection today. Clearly, my childhood introversion has done some permanent damage, but humor me for a moment. 

Apart from reading every popular dystopian series published when I was in middle school, I discovered the best thing to happen to literature since the Oxford comma — Tumblr. For a preteen girl whose friends did not enjoy dissecting character flaws of the protagonists in major book series during lunchtime, Tumblr was paradise. Although I now cringe at some of the more hysterical aspects of “fandom culture” (like when people would repost threads promising to mourn the death of Josh Hutcherson when it happened), I think that a lot of it has made a lasting impact on me.

My perpetual introvertedness was patched up by the endless pages of witty banter between my favorite characters, by the online discussions on the color symbolism in The Hunger Games series. As I dived deeper into reading about relationships, all while discovering an online community who appreciated overanalyzing things just as much as me, I was able to break out of my shell. What those endless threads taught me was that I didn’t have to talk to every single person that I crossed paths with or attend every single event thrown by my peers. For me, a healthy middle ground between the comforts of being sandwiched in blankets with a good book and stomach-churning social gatherings is the perfect sweet spot. 

People say that you can’t learn everything from books, but I beg to differ. They have shown me that, as much as I am at peace with my introversion, things are always just better with a close bunch of friends turned confidants. While they aren’t heroic adventures against monsters, dark wizards or the horrors of mankind, I like to think that I have found the people I can brave the throes of apartment hunting and class enrollment with. 

While my parents probably thought that my incessant reading habit throughout my elementary school years was a sign that I’d be a social recluse in my future, books were, ironically, the first thing to help me combat my shyness. In reading about ragtag groups of friends sticking beside one another through life’s ups and downs, even if they existed in dystopian hellscapes worlds away from my own boring suburban life, I was encouraged to exit my cocoon. I found myself being able to put myself out there, to allow myself to take up space like all the heroines I read about. For a girl who was once too shy to even sit at the kid’s table at events, books were what allowed me to emerge from the chrysalis of self-imposed judgment into a world without the limitation of dry-mouthed silence. 

My childhood idols — Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, Annabeth Chase of Percy Jackson and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games — might seem like strange figures to look up to in retrospect, but they were exactly what I needed at the time. They taught me that nothing is ever achieved from passive silence. So, even though it’s slightly embarrassing to admit, I am grateful for the literary “friends” that I found solace in as a kid. Without them, I would have stayed the quiet girl forever.

Naomi Lam writes the Monday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

MARCH 20, 2023