When people ask me if I have any siblings, I’m never quite sure what to say. The matter is confusing, to begin with, on the genealogical level: I have two half-sisters who are old enough—9 and 11 years my senior—to be my aunts. For the first decade of my childhood, I had all the sibling fun and drama a kid could ask for. But from the age of 10 on, after they’d both moved out, I lived (practically speaking) as an only child, soaking up all the various glories and torments (undivided parental attention vs. unrelieved loneliness) inherent in that condition.
But the matter of my siblings is confusing for another reason. The thing is, even when I was without them, I wasn’t really without them. My sisters’ departure—the commencement of my Only era—coincided with the blooming of my deep interest in reading. And, in addition to all the usual rewards that fall into the laps of devoted readers—adventure, wordplay, a limitless defense against boredom—the books I read as a kid gave me something else. They gave me fictional brothers and sisters.
It seems hardly coincidental that the first book series I became addicted to was The Hardy Boys. Originally conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, the books follow the travails of two crime-solving brothers, Frank and Joe, who are perpetually getting themselves into imminent-doom scenarios and then—via a grab-bag of ingenious maneuvers and some good ol’ brotherly teamwork—escaping by the skin of their teeth. Though Frank and Joe’s relationship could never fully supplant my own lack of a brother, reading about their adventures got me as close as possible the feeling of deep fraternity, of having someone who, by virtue of being your blood relation, is never allowed to leave your side, nor ever wants to.
Reading about pairs and trios of siblings frequently brought into focus the pitfalls of being an only child. But, just as often, literature showed me why I—ignorant as I was of sibling competition or jealousy—had every reason to feel lucky. During high school, on a wave of misguided precocity, I made an attempt to read King Lear. Though I was too young to comprehend the play’s fuller meaning (how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to what?), Cordelia’s sisters’ nasty antics left a permanent impression. Neither of my sisters was (or is) nearly as malicious as Goneril and Regan, but I was thankful not to have to share my family’s little castle with them anyway. If you’ll recall, things didn’t turn out so well for Cordelia.
My favorite fictional siblings, though, were probably other only children. At the same time that I was half-reading Lear, I was winding down my years-long affair with the Harry Potter series. While I was just as engrossed as the next Potter junkie by the inventive world of Hogwarts, what really compelled me about the series was Harry’s origin story: how he managed to escape the cruel treatment of his aunt and uncle and find companionship—a truly sibling-level closeness—with Ron and Hermione. The final book in the series was published in my senior year of high school, and I think that seeing how things turned out for Harry—who had found, at school, the brother and sister he didn’t have at home—helped me to prepare for my own transition to college, and the familial camaraderie I’d eventually forge there.
I can’t say that I read books to find siblings in the way that I used to. But I’m still sensitive to the nuances of fictional brothers and sisters, as well as to the experiences of sibling-less children. I recently finished John Updike’s The Centaur and found it to be, among other things, an advertisement for the splendors of the only-child lifestyle. On the other hand, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker (which tells the story of a woman caring for her brain-injured brother) made me wish, with a pang of regret, that I’d grown up with a sibling closer to me in age.
Ultimately, though, navigating my only-child experience with books taught me less about having or not having siblings than it taught me about the inimitable experience of reading. When I wanted to know what it felt like to have a brother, I could find a book immersive enough to give me that experience; and that experience, for the few hours that it lasted, felt—fourth walls be damned—real. Conversely, when I wanted access to someone else’s vision of being an only child, I could find a another book and have another experience of family that, while entirely different, felt equally vivid.
There’s a popular quote by George R. R. Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” I’d add that a reader can have as many—or as few—brothers and sisters as he pleases.