What Can Happen to You When You Read
Originally published at The Nervous Breakdown and reposted at The Good Men Project Magazine
If you’re like me you know that your father told you and your brother and sister stories. They often involved characters named Jamie, and companions or equally relevant characters named after your siblings, as together you all tromped through forests and conquered giants and met and saved princesses and you all became princesses and princes and eventually kings and queens. This transpired while you were tucked under the covers of your childhood bed in the bedroom in which you grew up, situated in the northwest corner of the house in which your parents raised you. The covers covered your knees and, sometimes—during the scary parts when Jamie had to outlast ogres, dragons, or giant rats—the covers reared up to your chin, just as you’d imagine they might in a movie version of this story of your life.
Your mother and father read to you, too. Actual books. They read to you from the Little Golden Books, in particular your favorites Peter and the Wolf, We Help Daddy, The Velveteen Rabbit, Baby Farm Animals, and probably fifteen others that you cannot remember and cannot find or do not recognize on Google. By the time you entered first grade the texts were literally Fun with Dick and Jane because you were in school in the early 1980s and in your rural California public school district funds had not yet been directed towards updating the reading pedagogy texts beyond those in use since the 1940s. There were other early reading avenues, but most of these did not involve media beyond the actual written word. Your family had a television, as is/was requisite of any U.S. family. But as this was 1980-1984 in these formative reading years, television was not yet the pervasive force it is today and your analog set had but thirteen channels pressed upon the console individually, as individual buttons each labeled according to its channel, and there was no question of visual electronic media existing beyond these thirteen. Channel thirteen was the end of your televised universe. Channel nine was PBS, where you watched Big Bird and Oscar and Bert and Ernie as they reinforced what actual humans taught you about the Roman alphabet and—as was your propensity, apparently—you largely ignored the vampiric Count. This would contribute to your later requiring a math tutor.
You read Dr. Seuss, of course. The staples: Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. You don’t remember reading anything like Horton Hears a Who! or The Cat in the Hat—anything they’d end up making into a feature film. You know you read The Cat in the Hat, but you can’t remember anything from the book, except the image of a startled goldfish balanced precariously atop the upturned end of The Cat in the Hat’s cane. Maybe Dr. Seuss was where you first heard the language: its trills and snaking. Is that it, poet-boy? Speaking of poetry, you read Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Everyone else did, too. You read The Berenstain Bears without feeling smacked in the forehead by their didacticism. You read The Tale of Peter Rabbit and you were horrified—so, so scared—of Mr. McGregor. You also had, at home, The Illustrated Children’s Bible by David Christie-Murray. You know you were Catholic—went to church every Sunday—but it’s only now that you see how religious your early education really was. Despite this you also read, as many kids did, Where the Wild Things Are. And it will come as no surprise that you greatly preferred the latter.
Eight years old, third grade, Mrs. Martineu: You kept your head down during multiplication table exams, cheating from the grid you’d written out, so small, slipped under the dittoed assignment reeking from the ditto ink. She had to have known, but never said anything (and this strategy worked, as through this cheating, by constantly checking those multiplication tables, you memorized them). She gave you that book, the one that opened everything: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You wouldn’t read it until the fourth grade, that year you were so miserable, after you’d taken the entrance exam and had been accepted at Sacred Heart School, and you left your friends who were all transitioning from Castroville Elementary to Gambetta. You always faked being sick, and sometimes you actually were. You got really sick, in fact. That’s why you ended up having that ear operation, and all the subsequent ear operations you would have into high school to replace all the damage caused by the colesteatoma. But that year, the fourth grade, when you were nine, and you lay on the living room couch, laid up sick, you picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and it was just like the cliché: you couldn’t put it down. You read the book in one afternoon. Then you read it again the same day. Then you read it again. The fourth grade, this miserable year, laid your reading foundations, because you did almost nothing else with your head bandaged, lying on the couch, book in hand.
And you read Squanto and the Pilgrims by A.M. Anderson. You loved this book, but in particular, you loved the first half of it, and would re-read that first half many times. That’s because the second half of the book was so goddamned sad. Squanto is kidnapped by English traders/explorers, and taken to England where he becomes a slave to a wealthy English merchant. In London, Squanto learns some rudimentary English, and is—according to this book—treated well, even if he has to wear the hard leather and wooden-soled shoes that pinch his feet. But the bitch of it all is when Squanto’s master agrees to send him home to North America. After the long sea voyage, and after all of Squanto’s hope and happiness about returning home, he finds his village deserted, all of his friends and relatives decimated from disease introduced years earlier—years during Squanto’s absence—by the English. But Squanto lives on, befriends Miles Standish, and helps the early English colony—the people we call the Pilgrims—to live in the wilderness of a place that would come to be called New England. But the first half of the book was the best part: during this time Squanto lives as an adolescent boy with his family in their village of Pawtuxet. Squanto prepares for his coming-of-age ritual in which he lives over the winter in the woods, in a shelter of his own making, and survives off food trapped in traps of his own making, and eventually kills a white wolf for its pelt, a pelt that another boy, a starving boy whom Squanto helps briefly to survive, steals before he leaves Squanto’s shelter. When Squanto survives his ordeal, and returns to his village to find that the boy he helped starved to death, but his father found his body shrouded in the white wolf’s skin, the boy’s father proclaims his son brave and victorious, but an unlucky young man. This, of course, outrages Squanto, who complains to his own father that the boy had stolen his wolf’s fur, after Squanto had helped the boy. But Squanto’s wise father tells his son that what matters is that the other boy’s father feels that his son did not die worthlessly, and that to disillusion him of this would be a worse crime. Anyway, the cool part you liked was all the survival skills that Squanto learns and employs, and how he came out, surviving the wilderness.
This ushered in a whole host of survivor stories, and of those that you remember best is The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. In this book a boy and his father have built a cabin in the woods in 18th century Maine, which, at the time, would’ve been “the West.” The boy’s father leaves to return to Boston, where he’ll retrieve the boy’s mother and his infant sister, so that they can all live in their new wilderness homestead and live the American Dream, etc. After dad leaves, this kid’s got problem after problem. A trapper shows up at his cabin one day and the boy, taught by his father to always be hospitable, invites the man to dinner, feeds him, gives him lodging, and upon waking finds that the trapper has cleaned him out. The boy’s flour and salted meat are gone, so too his musket, that most important tool that would’ve ensured survival over the winter. After a series of mishaps in attempts to survive (trying to get honey from a bee’s hive for example, and you can imagine the outcome here), the boy, after glimpses of the Native Americans of the vicinity, meets and befriends a Native boy near his own age. The two become such close friends, that the Caucasian boy gets invited to the native boy’s village. The boy learns how to make fishhooks carved from twigs, how to trap small animals for food, how to grow his own food, and he even learns the native language, and thus survives the winter. When the boy’s father and his mother return (baby-less, as the infant had died), they’re astonished to see that their son—whom they feared surely dead from starvation—thriving in his adopted wild home.
You also remember Robinson Crusoe from the Early Reader Series (No. 8), fully illustrated, and re-written from Defoe’s original language, but with Defoe still credited as “author.” You loved how Crusoe retrieved all that he could from the shipwreck that had stranded him on his island: hammers and nails and hatchets and guns: a bounty the likes of which most survival stories lack. Crusoe builds his island compound, befriends Friday, staves off cannibals and mutineers.
Maybe all these wilderness survival stories had something to do with your becoming a Boy Scout. What matters is that you read the Boy Scout Handbook and Scout Field Book, in which you learned various techniques for survival/camping in a number of ecosystems. This, you thought, was awesome. It might have been the first nonfiction (besides school textbooks) that you really read for pleasure.
But mostly you read fiction: The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks; The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright; Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary; The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (more survival narrative); The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. You blew through the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia books, none of them approximating the magic of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but fun nonetheless. You wanted to live with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy all the time, and regretted the books that strayed from their storyline.
When your mom and dad ordered the World Book Encyclopedia it came with the accompanying Childcraft series encyclopedias, and you fingered through the text and images, your favorite the World and Space book, with the photo of the sun and of the tornado on the cover. This began your interest in science. You loved the cheap bright illustrations. You loved the Arts and Crafts text that taught you how to make a cockpit out of a TV box, in which you might play pilot, like your grandfather. You loved the part of the World and Space text that showed you the leaves and fruit and seeds of various trees, most of which weren’t native to your part of California, but later—so much later—when you’d move east, you’d say “Sycamore” to the sycamore trees, when you spied their spiny seed pods fallen to the paths around the park in which you’d jog, the illustration of these pods from the World and Space childrens encyclopedia burned into your memory.
When you started in at A of the adult World Book Encyclopedia, your brother and sister would leave the television on, creep in from the family room, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and peer around the entryway into the living room, to the couch, upon which you sat, reading. They spied on you as you were enraptured by everything you encountered: The Phoenician roots of the letter A (turn it on its side and it resembles an ox skull complete with horns); the aardvark, the abecedarian, Azores. You kept reading, even when you caught your brother and sister spying on you and they giggled and laughed, and yelled, “Nerd!” before getting up off their little kid knees and tromping back through the house to the room that housed the television. You remember how you never cared for that television. You could not hold it. It never filled your imagination the way words could.
You tried, but you weren’t athletically talented. Not like your brother. He would run and slide, stealing bases in little league. He could juke and shoot so basketball came naturally. Still your boyhood fascination with sports heroes made you read from Sports: Great Lives by George Sullivan. You read about Babe Ruth scarfing down pancakes and knocking balls out of the park. You didn’t know when you were young that even your brother would stop playing sports before he even got into high school, but when you’re that young there are few heroes—outside of books—worth worshipping, and most of those that did exist came from the sports you so ineptly attempted to play. Underneath all that, at the end of the day, you returned to a book. When you couldn’t sleep, flashlight on in your upper bunk in the night’s dark: a book.
Your father subscribed to National Geographic Magazine and the collection stretched back to the 70s. Every issue was meticulously cataloged into leather cases, gold leaf-stamped with the appropriate date range to cover the issues therein contained. You pored over these magazines, scanning spines for articles that sounded interesting: “Life Returns to Mount St. Helens,” “Africa’s Elephants: Can They Survive?,” “After an Empire…Portugal,” “Ancient Bulgaria’s Golden Treasures,” “Titanic’s Titan,” “Reading Ape Bones.”
In middle school the novels got more serious, or so it seemed. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders hit you like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did years earlier, and suddenly you wanted to be in a gang. Lucky (or not?) for you there were plenty of gang members in Castroville, because most of your classmates were Mexican, and some of them were the children of Norteños. You remember two boys distinctly: Antonio Hernandez and . . . Maybe they’re not that distinct, since you don’t remember the other boy’s name, but what you do remember: he had XIV (the number affiliated with Norteños) tattooed on his forearm, and this kid was twelve years old. That kid once punched Mr. Coble—our algebra teacher—in the face when Mr. Coble tried to verbally discipline him. The other kid, Antonio, nicknamed Scarf for his scarred face, terrorized and befriended you. You even wrote a short story about Scarf. He died, stabbed and shot at a party in Salinas, in your freshman year of high school.
That last year of middle school, months before the earthquake that destroyed the Marina in San Francisco, though the quake’s epicenter was merely fifteen miles from your house, you and your family visited England, and there you saw William Shakespeare’s birthplace where you bought leatherbound pocket-sized editions of his plays. You read Macbeth as your father struggled with shifting gears using his left hand, and driving on the left side of the roads and highways. Though you had some trouble with the language, you knew at the beginning that there were witches, and that was enough to keep you reading. You read Julius Ceasar, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But you came home from abroad and both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s were tearing it up, and you forgot about reading. Then came the World Series, and of course the earthquake.
Your freshman year you read Homer’s Odyssey. You don’t remember reading anything else. Around this time you started smoking pot, and that likely has something to do with your broken memory. Or maybe not, because in sophomore year, in Mr. Condon’s English class, you read Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, The Death of a Salesman, The Crucible. And you were surprised with Of Mice and Men from its opening sentence: “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.” You never knew that someone had written books about the place where you were from. Hereafter you’d read all things Steinbeck.
Junior year in AP English with Mrs. McNiece was all Shakespeare. You acted the plays out in class, reciting the lines, learning metaphor, the heroic couplet, the soliloquy. You remembered reading Shakespeare a few years back, and it was familiar, but you got so much more from it in high school, especially seeing other people along with yourself acting the tragedies, comedies, and histories. You learned about sonnets.
Senior year of English you read only The Canterbury Tales in Mr. Johnson’s class, and you read the whole thing in Middle English, and you once thought Shakespeare was hard to understand.
What can happen to you if you’re a reader is that you go to college, and that’s where everything changes. You long since realized that any childhood dreams of being a professional athlete were just that: dreams. You took two classes that changed your life: Intro to Creative Writing Fiction/Poetry, and Western Traditions 203, where you read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. You didn’t realize what a cliché that was at that time, and perhaps even if you had it wouldn’t have mattered. Your mind was made up: you were going to be a writer—another sometime consequence of being a reader.
What does this decision bring you? Hunger. It brought you a new group of friends, other young people who likewise fancied themselves writers. It brought you some great joy those overcast days when you sat at your desk and banged out a story, pages and pages of notebooks filled with your awful rhymes and trite characters. Your Bukowski imitations. Oh, that’s right: you were reading a lot, too, as it also brought this. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf, and Wolfe, and all the other not-Kerouac Beats. You submitted to and did not win scholarships. You submitted to and did win scholarships. You published in your college literary journal. You worked crappy jobs to pay your rent: selling suits at the Men’s Wearhouse, making people sandwiches at sandwich shops, pouring drinks at bars.
You thought: you know what would be a great idea? Graduate school. But you didn’t apply to an MFA program; you stayed right there at your alma mater. This put you into a unique grad program: Literature and Environment. So you read Barry Lopez, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass. And of course you read everything by Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville. You realize at this point that you wish you could list everything you’ve ever read here in this essay, but you don’t think that’s possible, because you cannot remember every book, and reading something like that would not be at all interesting. The point is that reading brought you to this position, when you started teaching as a graduate assistant, and so you had a grad assistant’s stipend, which meant that, when you had to, you ate a lot of ramen, and sometimes you got your friends from the bar to comp you food. You walked a lot when your truck’s battery died and wouldn’t jump and you didn’t have the money to buy a new one. One of the happiest mornings of your life was the day you were walking to the university to your office hours and to teach, and outside the old Harrah’s Club in downtown Reno you found a stray ten dollar bill fluttering on the sidewalk. And you had planned not to eat that day, and you weren’t sure when you would eat again.
The other thing that happens when you’re a reader is that your hunger to read more is voracious. You’d move across the country, far from your family and friends. You thought you were poor in your old city. You made two thousand fewer dollars a year in your new city, and the cost of living was higher. So you spent a lot of time reading. Flannery O’Connor and Donald Barthelme and William Faulkner and John Donne. Man, did you fall in love with John Donne. Him and Barry Hannah. And James Baldwin. And Wallace Stevens. And you fell in love with Annie Dillard. And you fell in love again with Virginia Woolf. Let’s sum things up by saying this was the most prolific reading period of your life and you loved almost all of it.
What happens when you’re a reader is that you get married and you have a kid. And when that kid’s born, in her first half hour out of the womb, when she’s but this squirmy jostled thing wrapped in a blanket and crying in your arms, you begin to tell her the story of poor Prince Hamlet, who couldn’t decide. And she calms at the sound of your voice. And almost a year later, one night putting this little girl to bed, you pull out a book to read to her, one your mother recently brought from home when she visited last spring, and it’s a children’s book you forgot, but remembered once you saw the illustrations: Hush Little Baby. And you sing the words and show your little girl the pictures: Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird. And you tell this little baby hush, so that she too can go to sleep that night, you begin teaching this girl at too early an age how to read, because you believe that it’s never too early.