Writing about reading

There are many things to which I am grateful to my parents, but at the top of the list has to be their encouragement in reading. My parents read to me beginning at a young age. They did so fairly regularly, it seems to me.

I can remember sitting down on the couch in our living room in New Jersey, in what seemed to be the evening, and having them read me Dr. Seuss stories. It is therefore the Dr. Seuss books that were the first one to permeate my consciousness and for me to recognize as books that I enjoyed. Among all of the wonderful Dr. Seuss books my parents read, my favorite was Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?. I also enjoyed The Lorax, On Beyond Zebra, The Sleep Book, and of course, Scrambled Eggs Super!. I think the latter was my dad’s favorite for he read that one with eclat. There is one line from the book that I can still hear my dad reading, echoing through my brain as though it was yesterday:

And you know how they tasted? They tasted just like…Well, they tasted exactly, exactly just like… Scrambled eggs Super-Dee-Dooper-dee-Booper, Special de luxe a-la-Peter T. Hooper.

In the 3-to-5 year old section of my memory, I seem to recall my dad reading these books to me with expression, so that the characters had different voices. There was at least one Dr. Seuss story that I had memorized: “The Pale Green Pants” which could be found in his book, The Sneetches and Other Stories. I would recite the story to various people in my voluble 5-year-old voice and be made much of. To this day, some thirty years later, I can without any trouble, recall the beginning of the story:

Well, I was walking in the night and I saw nothing scary. For I have never been afraid of anything. Not very. Then I was deep within the woods, when suddenly I spied them. I saw a pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them!

While I loved Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, “Pale Green Pants” was the first story I ever remember having an emotional reaction to. Toward the end of the story, I felt like I wanted to cry from happiness. Even now, as I think of those concluding verses, I get a little misty-eyed:

I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “Oh, save me from these pale green pants with nobody inside!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering, and I began to see that I was just as strange to them as they were strange to me!

My favorite passage from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? was the one about Poor Mr. Bix.

Every morning at six, poor Mr. Bix had his borfin to fix. It just didn’t seem fair, it just didn’t seem right, but his borfin, it seemed would go SCHLUMP! every night. It SCHLUMPED in a heap, sadly needing repair. Bix thinks that it’s due to the local night air. It took him all day to fix it, and then, the night air comes back and it SCHLUMPS! once again.

With a start like this, how could one not become enamored with reading? The problem was, at the time, I could not yet read myself and I had to depend on my parents, or my memory of the stories to help me along. I do remember learning to read, however. In kindergarten, we had this flipchart for a character called “Milton the Monkey” and each day (or perhaps each week), he would teach us a new letter of the alphabet. I loved Milton the Monkey, but I have never seen him since. In searching online, I’ve only found vague references to him. Too bad. Anyway, it was through Milton that I learned the letters of the alphabet and the sounds those letters make. I can remember the feeling of triumph I had for the first word I could ever sound out on my own. The word was L-O-V-E. (I must have been able to sound out D-O-G and C-A-T- and simpler words, but L-O-V-E is the first one I remember, despite the silent E at the end.) Sometime after that, it seemed that I could read. I don’t remember any of the struggle or learning process besides what I have described.

There were other early books. I can recall my mom reading Mother Goose faerie tales to me. There was Peter and the Wolf (of which I also seemed to have a record at the time). There was Richard Scary’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go which I not only liked, but which I also remember was one of Doug’s favorite books for a time. I remember the first book on dinosaurs that I ever got and I was enthralled by it. (It was around this time that I was watching every episode of Land of the Lost that I could.) As I got a little older, there were non-fiction books too. First and foremost in my mind is a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I checked this book out of the Franklin Township Library again and again. Later, I would check it out of my school library. I couldn’t get enough of it. Not long after, I was given a book called something like The Larousse Guide To Astronomy. It was an adult-level book and I could never make much sense out of it, but I read it again and again.

After we moved to Rhode Island, I began reading more and more, both in school and out of school. In school, I recall reading a remarkable story called, “How Baseball Began In Brooklyn” by Le Grand. There was also a mystery story with an alligator detective, although I can’t remember the name. In third grade, we read aloud each morning from another remarkable book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Bloom. I looked forward each morning to finding out what would happen next to Peter Hatcher. Eventually, I read the sequel to the book on my own, Superfudge. We received a 4-page news magazine called The Weekly Reader from which we could order books. My parents would occasionally allow me to make purchases from the magazine. I remember ordering a non-fiction book on ghosts, which I read with a great deal of skepticism and contumely. One of the best books I ever got from the Weekly Reader was a book called David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd and Joan Raysor. That may have been my first exposure to fantasy books and I read it with delight. In fact, I seem to recall my mom being off at a retreat somewhere for a weekend, and when we went to pick her up, I spent the entire car ride engrossed in the book. It was not the last time that would happen to me.

There were other books from this era. I recall reading two of the Hardy Boys mysteries: The Missing Chums and The Tower Treasure. I can still picture the cover art for each in my mind. I also remember our parents getting for us abridged versions of “classics”. I thus recall reading the abridged version of Robin Hood, as well as Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There were two other abridged books, but their titles slip my mind. There was Encyclopedia Brown, over whom, for a short time, I had a mania. There were books like Are You There God, It’s Me Margret?, and Ramono and Beezus. Around this time I also read the first book, which on looking back on it years later, I recognized to be science fiction. It was A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle and I absolutely loved it! It was that book that introduced me to the notion of a tesseract and I would return to the book for years to come. Also, around this time, I recall my Grandpa getting me a book about robots called The Caves of Steel by a writer named Isaac Asimov. The book was too far over my 8 or 9 year old head and I didn’t read very much of it, which is a huge regret on my part. But it was an error that was ultimately and overwhelmingly corrected.

I don’t recall much reading from 6th grade. It may have been about this time that I read a book called Island of the Blue Dolphins. And it was in either 6th or 7th grade that I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which was remarkable in that it was the first book that I couldn’t put down. I started it at about 3 PM when I got home from school, and I didn’t budge from the couch until I’d finished reading it. In 7th grade, I began attending the Granada Hills Public Library regularly and there I sampled all kinds of stuff. I read a remarkable science fiction book called Race Against Time and years later found out it was by Piers Anthony. I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and loved it. I recall reading a number of miscellaneous science books. I could spend hours in the 500s section of the library shelves and I probably at least sampled every book there. I recall trying to teach myself shorthand with the aid of a library book. I thought it would make it easier to take notes in class. It never stuck. While at the library I read Boys and Sex and Girls and Sex, sitting at one of those cubicle desks they had. I was too afraid to check the books out and bring them home. The library was invaluable to me and it is one reason why I do what I can to support libraries each year. In fact, I am part of the Adopt-A-Library program that the Smithsonian Institution runs, and every year for the last 5 or 6 years, I have “adopted” two libraries: The Granada Hills library in Granada Hills, CA, and the Franklin Township Library in New Jersey. Without these libraries, my reading experience would be much more limited.

In eighth grade, I began to read science fiction in earnest and with the knowledge of what it was. I read a lot of Piers Anthony, for instance. In our eighth grade English class we read, Flowers For Algernon which I enjoyed, but did not appreciate as much as I did the second time I read it, about a year ago. (We also saw the movie Charley which was based upon the book, but I didn’t think much of the movie.) Beginning around 8th grade we were also introduced to the “classics”. We read A Tale of Two Cities, which I disliked intensely. So much so that I haven’t picked it up again since, although I should. We read the plays of Sophocles, which introduced me to the notion of tragedies. We read Romeo and Juliet and I found that while it was difficult to read, I nonetheless like the sound of the language, and thereafter, I enjoyed just about anything by Shakespeare. (Strangely, I can’t recall when I first read my favorite Shakespeare play, Henry V.) I recall reading Call of the Wild by Jack London and being absolutely fascinated by it. I went to the library and on my own, found White Fang, which I devoured in what seemed like a matter of hours.

In high school, as part of a humanities magnet program, we were exposed to stronger and stronger stuff. Much of it I didn’t read because I was busy reading other stuff for fun, and the fun stuff always took precedence over the school stuff. But of what I did read, the things that stand out were books like Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. This was my introduction to Vonnegut and I have enjoyed his books ever since. We read Hamlet which to this day is my favorite tale of revenge. We read Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, and which stands out in my mind as a classic book about Los Angeles. We read Day of the Locusts, The Bell Jar, and even The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, which was the most graphic book I had read up to that point. There was House of Stairs and Equis and the brilliantly funny Waiting for Godot. We read The Grapes of Wrath which I enjoyed and which years later I re-read and enjoyed even more. We read The Invisible Man, which I didn’t like and Ragged Dick which I loved. All of this was school-reading, however. I was still reading science fiction outside of school, and mostly books by Piers Anthony.

In college, my reading of science fiction began to expand beyond the bounds of Piers Anthony. I discovered Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Barry Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, and of course, Isaac Asimov. I would read books by these authors for fun, whenever I could, but it wasn’t often. Most of my reading time in college was spent reading for class, and I didn’t have a lot of free time, once studying was done and I’d finished my shift at work. And since college, I have kept a list of every book I have read since 1996 and my reading scope has increased by leaps and bounds. My goal has been to read a book a week but I have never quite made it. (I have seen how much reading someone like pussreboots does and I am in awe of it, and fearfully envious!)

What is it about reading that I enjoy so much? I don’t think it can be explained to a non-reader. Certainly, it is a form of escapism, if you are reading fiction. It is a form of self-education when reading non-fiction. It is a completely active process, providing minimal information so that your imagination has to fill in most of the blanks. This is the complete opposite of television, which make the viewer completely passive and leaves nothing to the imagination. If there is any magic in the world, however, it is the effect that reading has on one who loves to read. When I read a book, the world around me melts away and I am immersed in whatever it is I am reading. I can see the images. The words disappear from the page and it is as though I am an active player in the story. Or if it is non-fiction, I am an active observer in the events that are unfolding. Science fiction takes this to an extreme which I part of the reason I love it so. But setting that aside, I feel as though I have lived in the dust bowl of the 1930s. I feel as though I was there to storm the beaches at Normandy. I have tagged along with Professor Lidenbrock on his journey to the center of the earth. I have witnessed the formation of the Galactic Empire and I stood beside Hari Seldon when he died. I survived the battle of Agincourt with my band of brothers and King Harry. Nothing else compares to the feeling you get from these experiences. Books make me laugh out loud, frown, rear back in disgust, and cry. This is part of the reason I want to be a writer. I want to give back some of what I have taken from this treasure of literature we have created.

Reading a book is about the only thing that can make me late for an appointment. I simply get too engrossed in it and forget I have to be somewhere. Time has no meaning when reading a book. Back is L.A., I used to sit out in the porch at 9 AM in the morning with a book in hand and when I came up for air, it was 4 PM. I completed The Three Musketeers in this very fashion. I walk and read. Back when I visited the Granada Hills library, I would walk home (about a mile) reading whatever it was I checked out. I got good at walking and reading (although I do both at a slower pace) and to this day, I will take walks while reading a book. I read on planes and trains, and while waiting to board. I read while waiting for appointments, and even while waiting for meetings to start (meetings at work inevitably start 5-10 minutes late and I can squeeze in 6-7 pages in that time). I read in the bathroom and I would even read in the shower if there was a way to prevent the water from damaging the book. Some of my happiest memories are of summers in Studio City, sitting out on the porch with a tall Coke beside me, my chair propped against the wall, reading whatever it was in front of me. Before I lived in Studio City, I would drive out to Pacific Palisades, to a small park up on a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean, and there I would sit, content to read for hours. The scenery was beautiful but I never paid attention to it after the first five minute. I was lost in my books. I remember reading William Gibson’s Virtual Light there, as well as Damon Knight’s Why Do Birds. Even now when I go to L.A. on business, if I am there on a Saturday morning, I will walk over to the park up on the cliff just north of the Santa Monica pier, find an empty bench and settle down to read for a few hours.

Napoleon was famous for saying he wept that there we no more worlds to conquer. I used to dream of reading every book ever written. I will be lucky to read an infinitesimally small fraction of every book ever written. I could spend my whole life reading and barely make a dent. Of all of the inventions throughout the history of mankind, the invention of written language has to be among the greatest. It is, perhaps, taken for granted in this day and age, but every now and then, I’ll browse something written by Shakespeare or Plato or Jefferson and think to myself how remarkable it is that these long dead thinkers and dreams are still, after all of the interceding centuries, able to communicate their thoughts and words to me. It is as if they were literally speaking to me. the same is true for Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, and Isaac Asimov.

It is with sadness that I think of illiteracy today. Set aside the fact that life must be terribly difficult and frustrating for someone who is unable to read, and think of they enjoyment they are missing! It boggles my mind. I am forever grateful to my parents that they encouraged my reading, and for whatever fortune it was that assured that I never had any difficulty in reading. There really is a kind of magic to it. On a day like today, a spring day with a rare snowfall, I can pick up the book that is sitting next to me, and within moment, I will be inside a small candy story at Windsor Place in Brooklyn, during the summer of 1938, far, far away from the cold, gloomy weather that awaits me outside.