I look back now with amazement at all the small acccidents that put certain books before me, and how in my childhood I was taken up by them, as if by the strong arms of a parent I'd never known and been badly missing, to be carried inside to this warm safe place of reading. My mother read crime stories, exclusively and avidly, visiting the old mansion that served as the town library in those days and coming out most Saturdays with a pile of Crime Club novels protected in crinkly acetate covers. She did not read to me as a child—no one had read to her, and I suspect she thought that reading would be something I would naturally undertake when I was old enough to do it myself.
I attended Catholic school, where the nuns vaguely disapproved of books that were not meant for the classroom—you weren't allowed to have them with you during the day, even in your bag. The first books I got from the library were suggested by the librarian and involved talking pigs: I hated them, a realist to my core. Eventually, I found sports stories involving heroic kids who hit home runs in crucial Little League games, and biographies that were small and fat and came in orange covers. I remember best the biographies of Abe Lincoln, Lou Gehrig, and Phil Rizzuto (a shortstop for the Yankees before I was born, later a sportscaster). Someone gave me a Bobbsey Twins book, which I liked, and I read three of those before moving on to the Hardy Boys: While I couldn't have put a name to it then, the transition was from the sanitized to the erotic (speedboats, cars, penny loafers, chinos, girlfriends, and the mysterious unwed father), a giant leap that is essential to the making of a committed reader. I read with the flashlight under the covers, that old battery-sapping and deeply pleasurable cliché.
Later I took up the novels of the sea, The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy and the Hornblower series, which I consumed at an alarming rate. None of the classics of childhood—Beatrix Potter, E.B. White, Tolkien—came before me. I did not read Dr. Seuss, who was immensely popular at the time, because my mother deplored him for what I gathered were political reasons. A onetime fan of Senator Joseph McCarthy, my mother had gotten the idea that Dr. Seuss was a Communist.
I remember whole summer days spent reading. When I was old enough to take an interest, I started to steal my mother's detective stories. They had sex and whiskey and cigarettes in them and so were the peak of forbidden sophistication. And I remember reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the first book I ever got to the end of and immediately began reading again: To this day, that is a short list. Twain ends the book with an intriguing little conclusion in which he says that he wasn't quite sure where to stop his tale: that stories of grown people end in marriage, but that the author of a story about a boy must end it "where best he can." I was struck by those lines: The author was speaking directly to me, and telling me that he had written this thing, this world, this three-dimensional inner cinema; that he had made choices about it and wondered if they were the right choices. This was like the voice of God, it seemed to me, but it was warm, self-deprecating, witty. Twain's postscript confirmed for me something I couldn't have verbalized: that I was reading (as before I had listened to my transistor radio and watched television) in order to hear a voice, to get to know a character, a language, and ultimately an author. Knowing others, of course, is one way we know ourselves; being alone we know ourselves another way. Reading combines the two.
When I was 16, a small, surprisingly serious bookstore opened in my suburban town (not too many years later, once it had fed me the proper food, it closed down, leading me to believe with a combination of ego and superstition that it came into existence specifically for me). Something about the place struck me as glamorous, and I started to hang around there. I thought it would be cool, for instance, to read poetry. So I perused and bought my first books of poetry there: Specifically, I bought collections by Richard Thomas, who played John Boy on The Waltons, and by Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on Star Trek. I had seen them both on talk shows and thought they were serious and deep, which, as actors appearing on talk shows in those days, they strikingly were. I also bought that day two slender, beautifully designed little paperback collections of poetry by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, because I'd heard both poets mentioned in a Bob Dylan song and then again on the radio by the great monologuist Jean Shepherd. I knew nothing of poetry. But I was able to make an important discovery. Thomas and Nimoy, whom I wanted to like, were clearly rather bad poets. Eliot and Pound, on the other hand, just as clearly were not. I could not understand them at all, yet I liked them, I could hear them. In their words, something ineffable came to reside on the page, something very suggestive, something more than images, more than music, more than meaning even, since the meaning was altogether too elusive for me. In these lines was a human voice hinting at beauty and knowledge and a mastery of language that was meant to serve both. And so, working from the basis of The Mike Douglas Show and Merv Griffin and the radio I listened to after lights-out, I discovered the difference between great writing and other kinds. Criticism is as natural as breathing, Eliot wrote in an essay I would read years later, a fact made plain to me by my absurd first purchases of verse.
I stayed with those books, the Pound and particularly the Eliot. I worked on them, worked to understand them. I can't say why, or, more precisely, I can't recapture what such a commitment felt like: I'm middle-aged now and hardly ever find myself willing to do that much work anymore.
Yet the urge is still there, this desire for both mystery and revelation that good writing provokes and then satisfies. The other day, in a Starbucks, of all places, on upper Broadway in New York City, I saw a crisp sheet of white paper resting at the top of the trash bin built into the module where you get your napkins and stirrers and low-fat milk and cinnamon powder. There was typing on it, set with the ragged right margin of poetry, my old friend. I knew, just glancing at the arrangement of letters on the page, that I wanted to read this writing: I am hard-pressed to explain why I knew this, but I did. So I drew the page from the little aluminum-sided hole and found myself rereading, after many years, a great World War I poem by Wilfred Owen, a British poet who died in that war. It begins:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge....
The setting is a dreary exhausted march. The call comes that the soldiers have been attacked by gas; they fumble and rush to don their masks, but one doesn't manage it, and Owen describes him "flound'ring like a man in fire or lime"—he is "drowning" in the gas. The other soldiers load him into a wagon. Owen describes his "white eyes writhing" and, in the poem's most devastating moment, "his hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin."
Apparently, the page had been discarded by a student or teacher, for at the bottom of it, after the poem, were two questions: "(1) List strong visual images" and "(2) List words used to describe the setting where this event took place." Since the whole poem is composed of "strong visual images," and since the "setting" beyond sludge and war is never named, it struck me that being forced to struggle with dull questions like these can do almost as much to kill a young person's pleasure in reading as all the television shows and movies and video games you could name. But then, I must have encountered such questions myself, many times, and they didn't kill my pleasure. For those drawn to it, reading will survive the worst teachers, the most overbearing parents, and all the clamor of media and distraction and noise we can throw at it, because, even on scraps found in trash cans, words properly arranged are a joy.
The odd combination of moods, desires, and satisfactions that makes you the willing prisoner of a language and world you can't bear to give up. A list of such books will be as mysterious in the end as the personality of the reader. Mine are:
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
- The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
- Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
- Skippy by Percy Crosby
- Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien