Because I was born in October I was kept back from school for a year. There was no Kindergarten in those days, so my mother taught me to read at home. Every morning we sat by the fireplace and read from the Dick and Jane primer. Neither of my parents had much formal education, but they read to my sister Evangeline and me every night. I sat on one of my dad's knees and she sat on the other and we listened to him read storybooks she brought from school, as well as Mother Goose, and stories from the Bible.
My parents were very devout, and they required us to read from our Testaments every day. My first reading on my own was probably Farmer Boy and the Little House on the Prairie books. But I didn't really fall in love with books until the Henderson County Bookmobile began coming to Green River Baptist Church the first Monday afternoon of every month around 1957 or 58. The bookmobile was an old utility truck fitted out with shelves. I checked out Jack London's Klondike stories and James Oliver Curwood's Royal Canadian Mounted Police stories, and raced through them in the dim light of my bedroom on rainy days, and after the milking and other work was done.
From London and Curwood I moved on to Dickens and read Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. I saw Tolstoy's War and Peace advertised in the Sears and Roebuck catalog as "the greatest novel ever written." When I spotted the huge volume in the bookmobile at the age of fourteen I checked it out. Never had I been so possessed by a book before. For weeks I lived in Imperial Moscow and on the Napoleonic battlefields. Tolstoy showed me a richness and depth of characterization, and a range of experience I'd never dreamed of before. Soon after that a Friend's brother who had gone off to college sent him a copy of Crime and Punishment and I read that with equal fascination. They were spiritual books, and epic stories.
My first writing was done in the sixth grade for a teacher named Mr. Ward. One day the rest of the class was visiting the Biltmore House near Asheville. The cost was three dollars, which I did not have. Rather than let me sit idle in the classroom all day, Mr. Ward told me to write a story. Knowing I liked the Jack London stories so much, he suggested I write about a man lost in the Canadian Rockies, describing how he found his way back to civilization. I worked on the story all day, and got so involved with the plot and character I was surprised when the rest of the class returned at the end of the day.
Over the years since I've had so many favorite authors it would be hard to list them all. But in recent years I've especially enjoyed reading the work of contemporaries, especially Southern and Appalachian writers such as Fred Chappell, Cormac McCarthy, Lee Smith, Doris Betts. And I especially admire authors who write honestly about rural life, such as Thomas Hardy, and those who write about Native American life such as Louise Erdrich and Jim Welch. A story that has meant a lot to me over the years is Alice Walker's Everyday Use.
But I also love reading biography and history, especially regional history. I always recommend to young writers that they read history. You only learn to write by writing, as you learn to play tennis by playing, but reading widely and intensely helps also.
© 2000 Robert Morgan