I’m cheating a little with this post for #SundaySciWri. For one, it doesn’t have anything to do with science and, two, I wrote this several years ago and only now forcing myself to publish it.
My love of literature began with a small handmade bookshelf hanging on the wall of the Philadelphia row home where I grew up. The bookshelf was small enough to accommodate paperback copies that could fit in your back pocket. My Dad had a set of Shakespeare’s plays and other assorted novels and popular non-fiction from the early 70s. I believe Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was one of the titles along with an assortment of “true” ghost stories.
From an early age, I equated books with being smart and, perhaps, being different. This was something my father reinforced. In the lunch box, he carried with him to the factory where he worked he had a spiral notebook, pen, and whatever book it was he was reading. He sat in the break room eating a ham sandwich and jotting notes from whatever thoughts were going on in his head as he watched a Blanchard machine grind strips of metal into accurate blades.
In my hands, the books became precious objects. The cheap paperbacks and their brittle course paper I handled with care so not to disturb the bindings. Reading was like sneaking through the house careful not to disturb anything.
The Shakespeare books were what I aspired to since smart people read Shakespeare. I still remember the opening lines of Hamlet from those days and trying to get my friends to read the play with me. They were not interested and I never made it past Act I, Scene One. It took me another 15 years before I read Hamlet in its entirety.
My own favorite books from this time were Harry the Dirty Dog, Gus the Friendly Ghost, The Surprise Party, and Frog and Toad. I was also a big fan of the Scholastic baseball collections containing short bios of contemporary baseball stars. I remember reading that Mike Schmidt blew out his knees from hanging on a power line.
From there I progressed to older baseball players and learned more about the history of baseball from the library at Adaire Elementary and the Fishtown Public Library. I loved the poem “Tinkers, to Ever, to Chance” though that baseball trio was long gone. The old-time immortals of baseball held a special charge for me. The nostalgia, the myths, the folklore, the heroic feats, it was then that I knew I was destined to become a Romantic.
Perhaps following the Romantic checklist, tales of the supernatural and the unknown intrigued me. I checked out any book about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or aliens. Ghost stories too. Then I found Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a collection of campfire stories based on folklore. I always had this book checked out of the library. The pictures were interesting enough, oozing black and white sketches, but the ability of these tales to frighten its reader or even better those being read the stories was my first introduction to the power of story.
I was not a precocious reader by any measure. I was more interested in the Choose Your Own Adventures series and movie tie-ins to Gremlins and ET. However, my Dad gave me a collection of the Now Age Illustrated classic books, essentially graphic novels (or what we called comics) providing an early introduction to The House of Seven Gables, Around the World in Eighty Days, Huckleberry Finn, etc. I loved these books. I can still see myself reading them by a bare light bulb in my third-story bedroom. These were the stories that lingered with me long after I finished reading them. They were something more than words on papers. They were trying to say something.
Perhaps the most influential book on my reading and writing life was received as a Christmas present, perhaps, I don’t really remember. But The Big Book of Amazing Facts by Malvina G. Vogel was a constant bedside companion. It consisted of questions and short articles answering those questions. It was divided into sections about science, civilization, the universe, and other seemingly trivial knowledge. My original copy is long lost. It was a cheaply made book with pages that felt like sandpaper and were probably yellowed when it was brand new. In the age of the Internet, I was able to find two copies and they are my most treasured books.
In middle school at Conwell Middle Magnet, thanks in part to HBO showing The Outsiders, I discovered S.E. Hinton. In a time where most of my classmates were reading C.S. Lewis and other sci-fi/fantasy adventures, here was a writer who was keeping in real. Even though her book was set in the Midwest, this was something I could identify with – someone who felt like a stranger in his surroundings, the struggles of the working class, the constant threat of violence, the envy of the haves, and, yes, the idea that nothing gold can stay.
My daughters are now the ages I was when I discovered some of these books. I’ve tried to introduce some of my favorites to them, but they are finding their own paths. They love graphic novels and the Who Was series. They love finding their own characters they identify with and the stories that speak to them. Those books will be their foundation just as mine is mine.
I think this is the trick to reading and one that as a recovering English major I have recently learned. Literature that speaks to you and makes you turn the page to discover more is literature worth reading. I’m not saying don’t step outside of your comfort zone. It’s good to explore. But not every book will be an explosion of wonder. Some books you may want to like but find them plodding and meandering. It’s all good. Find writers to challenge you. Find new worlds to explore.
I have the Big Book of Amazing Fact sitting next to me now as I write. I’m reminded of that scene in the movie Amelie when she returns a childhood treasure to a now middle-aged man. “Life’s funny,” says Bretodeau. “To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood… fits in a rusty little box.” I know how he felt. This book is a part of me. That’s the true power of reading because where else can you retreat into nostalgia and still find the promise of the future?