Friday, July 25, 2008
A Life Spent Reading (Pt. 1: Childhood Roots)
The other day I posted a picture of my book collection (most of it, anyway), and it got me wondering once again, how in the world did it get to this? Why do most of the people I know own just a few books, and I own over a thousand? Is there a rhyme or a reason to this exorbitant amount of literary accumulation?
For as long as I can remember, books and time spent reading have been an integral part of my life. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me, her arms around me holding a book that we would both be looking at as she read and I either followed along or looked at the pictures while my imagination was carried off in the pages of books like The Velveteen Rabbit (one of my mother's favorites) and Where The Wild Things Are. My favorite childhood picture is of me, at 3 years old, sitting next to a record player with a book in front of me (only a bubble-pipe in my mouth could have made the picture any better). I like to think I was listening to music while reading (as I'm fond of saying that my life hasn't really changed since then), but I remember those books that came with a little record inside of them all too well. A narrator would read the book, usually along with wonderful sounds and character actors playing their part of the story. I had a whole shelf full of these, and I am grateful to my parents for so much encouragement in getting me to read so early in life. My mother even says that she used to read to me before I was born. She used to talk about her own love of reading as a child, saying she would often stay up all night and read a book (like White Fang) from start to finish, simply because she couldn't put it down. I remember how I was influenced by that idea and wanted to do the same thing, staying up well into the night, even that early, as a child, either in my room or in the blanket-tent/fort I would make in our living room on weekends, trying to read a book from start to finish. I usually couldn't make it through to the end the way my mother did, though. (One Saturday in 5th grade, I tried to read The Red Badge Of Courage straight through, and I have a distinct memory of wishing that book would end already, but plowing on in spite of my boredom with it. Even in childhood I was growing the roots of OCD that wouldn't let me not finish a book I started, no matter how much I wasn't enjoying it!)
My father was an English lit major during his first go at college, and in my later life now, I fully see the influence that had on me (at some point in recent years, I realized I was buying a lot of books that he already had copies of. Our interests in literature had begun to overlap). Our house always had shelves full of books, which I would play with as a child even before I was old enough to understand anything written inside of them. I think this early and constant, intimate and comfortable exposure to books certainly led to a development of a love for books themselves, as talismanic objects of wonder and enjoyment in my life. One of my favorite parts of the school year was the Scholastic book order. I can only vaguely remember anything I ordered from there (usually a Guinness book of world records was acquired yearly…something that may have subliminally led to my love of Guinness beer later in life), but I distinctly remember the thrill I felt when my stack of new books came in! (I still get something of that thrill as an adult through the magic of Amazon.com…) I also have summertime memories of joining the reading club at the library, where you would get prizes or something for reading a certain amount of books…
In 6th grade, in an otherwise educationally vacuous Christian school experience, I had one of the best teachers of my life. Mr. Wynn Clack was one of those teachers that you are proud to have known, someone who knew how to reach kids and get them interested in school in a way that is all too rare. One of the keys to his success was the freedom we had as students to pursue that which interested us. He had a love of history and had copies of historic newspaper front-pages hung up on the back wall that we could peruse and become familiar with without a single word of their history needing to be taught to us. We learned history because we were fascinated by these moments of history displayed before us. He loved photography, and we were allowed to bring cameras to class and take pictures at will. I took full advantage of this, possibly more than anyone else in the class, and have an album full of great childhood memories from that year. And Mr. Clack always gave us free reign of as much time as he could to read - whatever we wanted to read. Time spent reading in class was time well spent in his estimation, and looking back on my school years, I would say it was some of the best quality time I've ever spent in class. That was one year I truly loved going to school and looked forward to class time. That was also a transitional year for me in regards to my reading abilities and the kinds of books I was reading. The books I read were having a more profound (and sometimes embarrassingly silly) impact and effect on my life. I read my first C.S. Lewis book in 6th grade - an author who is still one of my top 5 favorites (I'll let you make the obvious guess as to "witch" book that was. Suffice it to say, playtime in the winter took on a whole new dimension in my imagination after that, with snow-covered tree landscapes transforming themselves into a place called Narnia). I read Johanna Spyri's "Heidi" (unaware of the "fruity" implications there may have been for a 6th grade boy to be reading such a book) and her description of the evening sky catching on fire developed in me the beginnings of a lifelong love of sunsets... (descriptions of the grandfathers meals for Heidi also inspired me to start snacking on cheese chunks with buttered bread and milk...one of those random odd influences literature can have on an open and impressionable young mind, and something I still do to this day). As a sort of counter-balance to reading Heidi, I read my first Mark Twain book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - a book whose influence on my life probably would have horrified my parents (I took to sneaking out of the house late at night sometimes to walk to the "cemetery" about a mile from our house. If you don't know why, read the book!). I fell in love with these books and the adventures they contained more than any books I had read before. I got lost in the worlds they depicted, and I reread Tom Sawyer a handful of times - it was my guide to life as a 6th grader. I still count it as an all-time favorite.
It wouldn't be until a couple years later that a book would influence me as much, and that book was one that would influence my entire life as a teenager. A book whose influence has been shared by millions of teenagers for the past few decades, written by an author whose few books opened up a world for teenagers the likes of which had never been portrayed in literature in that way before. A book about teens that didn't focus on prom-drama or dating or changing bodily functions, but rather one where the teens were in charge of their own lives, and authority was all but absent (the kind of world most teens dream about)... A legendary classic called The Outsiders…
(to be continued...)