I’ve always loved reading, and I know why. I remember the early struggles in first grade with “Dick and Jane”, the humorous adventures of “Little Black Sambo”, the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. I can even still see some of the pictures from those books, read at such an early age. Recently I was given a rude, if somewhat humorous reminder of why I love to read when, watching TV, I saw a bit of the movie trailer for “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. Mistaking it for a TV movie preview, I turned to my wife and said, “Hey! You’ll want to watch that when it comes on. It’s a really good movie! I loved it!”
My wife turned to me incredulously. “What do you mean?” she asked. “It hasn’t even hit the movie theaters yet!”
“Yes it has!,” I refuted. “I saw it last year!”
And that’s when they played the announcement. “Coming to your local theater this month.”
I was dumbfounded, then I remembered.
I hadn’t seen the movie at all, not in the conventional sense. I had read the book. And like so many things I read, it played like a movie in my head. No wonder the scenes looked so familiar, I thought, staring at the TV and musing. I had already seen it before – through the power of imagination.
And that’s why I love books, love to read. It opens worlds to me.
It started when I was little – my mom taking me to the public library. There among the children’s books I found a sci-fi book – something about a little green man and two children. And I was hooked. From there I went on to read more and more – adventure series, Jack London, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson – all the greats. And each time I would be transported from my own world into one of an author’s making – taking great leaps through time and space, putting myself in the shoes of some adventurer. I was already an imaginative kid; this stretched my imagination even further. My dad, a follow of Edgar Rice Burroughs, led me on to Tarzan and later, John Carter of Mars. On my own I explored “A Wrinkle In Time” and “Treasure Island”, and walked with Robinson Crusoe on his lonesome beach. But when we lived in the ‘hood the library was far away; going there was always a treat, albeit a rare one. But my mom, an avid reader herself, made sure we made at least one trip a month after I began reading, strengthening my desire for more and more, not to mention we always got our monthly copy of National Geographic – a magazine I continue to subscribe to.
It wasn’t until we’d moved to Germany and were living on the military bases that libraries became important to me. Living within walking distance of the post libraries, I found myself hauling my wagon on weekly visits to this building of wonderlands. Checking out a dozen, two dozen books at a time, I would load up my wagon and go home. And I read them, tearing through one, two, sometimes even three novels a day. Isaac Asimov’s robots, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury – with them I “Sang the Body Electric”, explored “The Caves of Steel”, having become a “Stranger In A Strange Land”, perhaps I was looking for “A Way Home”, or a glimpse of other worlds in which to immerse myself.
I’ve mentioned that after we’d moved to Germany from the ‘hood, I started to change. The first two years are fuzzy, but after that things grow clearer. Looking back I feel a sense of sadness at the change, knowing now what I had turned into, and what I had turned from. For those years of constant moving – being deprived of friends, long periods of restriction – more moving, constantly losing my friends – more acquaintances when you only get to spend a a month or two with them before either they or you move on – was forcing me to rely on myself for everything most people take for granted: close friendships, relationships with others, social contacts. And one is indeed a lonely number. Left to itself – what else can it do but dream? And in those books I found prefabricated dreams from another mind; people I could sometimes relate to.
The people who knew me in the ‘hood have told me that I was an friendly child, willing to talk to strangers, open and outgoing. But after two years – first being yanked from my childhood home, then sent on the road with my parents – for it seemed we were living in a new apartment almost every month or two or three – constantly changing schools, falling behind in my grades – I began to withdraw, isolating myself from the world. Not that I didn’t continue to go out and have fun – I did – but emotionally I was becoming withdrawn. And there was a reason for that.
Imagine: you meet someone at school you like. You know and they know it is only temporary. You know – and they know – that no matter what you do, you are going to lose touch. Sooner or later someone’s father is going to have orders coming down forcing one of you to move. How many times can you take growing close to someone – only to have them yanked away? Sometimes disappearing without notice? How many times can you take having a friend – and then finding yourself suddenly transported, never to see them again? How many times before you start to get the twisting feeling of futility in your gut upon making a new friend? I’ll tell you: after awhile, it begins to wear on you. After awhile you begin to be more cautious about making friends. After all – it’s going to hurt you in the end. It always does because it always has – you know that from the history of your eleven or twelve or thirteen year old life.
I began looking at people with a more cynical eye, realizing this truth about our relationships – any relationship. I would meet kids at school, knowing from the start our friendships were doomed. They knew it too, or perhaps they were just able to ignore it better. Or, even more likely, they didn’t consider ‘the end’ – but we all knew it was coming. I don’t know how many conversations started with “When are you going home?”. And it wasn’t home to your apartment. It was home “Stateside”, four thousand miles away. And if that wasn’t enough, there was always the possibility that someone would move anyway – from one base to another in the constant shuffling the Army was doing with our fathers. You never knew from one day to the next if your friend would be there – or if you would go and knock on their apartment door only to find a complete set of strangers living there. It happened many a time, and not only to me, but the other kids as well.
After two years I began to notice – perhaps it was just me, or in the other kids as well: a sense of guarded friendship, as though we didn’t dare open up too much to one another. And for me it was especially acute. I would meet someone new, and shaking their hand and narrowing my eyes, ask: “When are you going to be gone?” Sometimes it would be a few months, sometimes a year; often we didn’t know. And so I found myself turning inward, away from people – and towards those books.
Like I said, I tore through novels the way starving folks tear through meals, spending hours upon hours laying on my bed, reading. When classes would change at school you’d find me wandering from one destination to another, reading a book on the way. At recess or lunch I’d be on a bench or sitting at a table, a book spread out before me. And I found my love was in science fiction, followed closely by action/adventure. The librarians would raise their eyebrows when I would come to the desk, burdened by an armful of books – only to tell them: wait – I’m going to get some more. And then I would leave, my little red wagon full – only to return a week later, all of them read and ready for another load.
By the time I was fourteen, I had long since graduated to adult reading material. Having cleaned out the “Young Adult”, I had to move on.
By seventh grade they tested me on one of those SATS or some other sort of thing. My parents were proud, if not somewhat awed. I had tested out with a junior college level vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. But I still did poorly in math and grammatical English. (Please – don’t ask me to identify a prepositional phrase. I couldn’t then, and still can’t. And what IS an adverb, by the way?)
We came back to the United States when I was an old fourteen, going on fifteen. I immediately began going to the public libraries, doing the same old thing: checking out a couple dozen books at a time (almost exclusively science fiction) – and returning them within a week or two, or whenever I could get a ride.
By the time I was seventeen, I couldn’t find a single science fiction book in any library anywhere (except among the new releases) that I hadn’t read. It was when I caught myself reading (in desperation) a collection of Russian science fiction short stories (god-awful stuff) – that I knew: I would have to give up reading science fiction for a long, long time.
And so I did.
My intention at the time was this: I knew when I grew old there would be another batch of science fiction books out there – ones which had been written since I gave up the genre – and I could read them once again. Not the old ones – I had already read them, and most of what I read “sticks” with me for decades. (Especially technical articles.) I finally got me a new library card last year – and starting with the “A’s” – I’m working my way through the library again. Not like I did before – I have my writing and life to engage me – but I find myself picking up books with the same savor, knowing that worlds lay within.
Somewhere down the line I picked up reading ‘factual’ books. I have a National Geographic collection that goes back to the mid-sixties. I’ve read every one of them – and can recall articles which I read many years ago. I make myself read every article of every magazine – and as a result, have found both my interest and my knowledge of the world grow. During my Marine Corps stint, I made a firm vow to myself. In order to avoid going through “it” again – that long period of having no science fiction to read – I would pick up only three or four fictional books – and one non-fiction. That’s how I came to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s massive three volume set, “The Gulag Archipelago”. Each one is as thick as a library dictionary, if not thicker. That earned me the respect of my Corps peers, if nothing else. I also learned that the more you read about a subject (no matter how boring it seems at the outset) – the more interesting it can get. That, in turn, has led me to read about all manner of things: from A to Z. And I retain most of what I read, which is a good thing, because I’ve read so much. (I guess that’s part of the reason I score so high on IQ tests: I know a lot of ‘junk’, which isn’t anything to brag about, since knowledge does not equal wisdom, and I have a long way to go on that sort of thing.) But reading became an integral part of my life somewhere back when, somewhere back there, during all those moves in Germany.
So it was a mixed curse, or mixed blessing, that making and parting with friends, learning to rely on myself. Those long periods of isolation were filled with imaginary worlds, and later technical facts – things which I can visualize with ease. (For instance, quantum physics: I can’t do the math, but I can ‘see’ the interplay of particles in my head.) With all the science fiction I read came a lot of science fact, and that science fact drove me to explore further.
I love reading. There’s no changing that. But sometimes I wonder where I would be if we’d never left for Germany, if I’d never been forced to retreat from the world and into the world of books. Would I still love reading as much as I do? I sort of doubt it. But I do know one thing.
Reading enriched my life.