The Evolution of an Insatiable Bookslut: Neal’s Tale

18 June 2013 by 21 Comments

Our house was always overflowing with books. We had bookshelves everywhere. Books stacked on the stairs. Books piled at the front door. Books littering the floors of our car. People would trip on them, curse them, and then perhaps sit down and flip haphazardly through the pages. My parents read books to me and all my siblings growing up; but more than that, our house was just saturated in print material, and I’d have had to work really hard to not have a book within reach at all times.

Me, circa 1993, the life of the party

There were two kinds of books initially on my MUST! READ! THEM! ALL! list: anything space related and anything mythology related. Before I could even sound out the word “Universe,” the National Geographic Picture Atlas of our Universe was a frequent flier on my elementary school library account.

Damn, that’s an awesome cover.

And the mythology books — they set the tone for the rest of my life.

No, not this. This came later.

In college, I would dig into the significance of myth and legend, unearth and wrestle with the deep cultural significance of what Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey.” But at eight years old, all I really knew was that when Hercules held a creature’s neck in one hand and bashed its head with the other, something stirred in me. When Thor threw his hammer and the speed of its passage rent the air with a crack of thunder, I sensed that I, too, had heroic blood coursing through my veins, and the world held in store great monsters for me to vanquish.

These. Monsters are awesome.

My mom always hoped I’d get into biographies. She’d check out books about Andrew Jackson or Daniel Boone or Marie Curie, and slip them into my library check-out pile. And yeah, I read a few of those. And I pored over The Way Things Work, and I zipped through the Encyclopedia Brown series, and in my third grade classroom, the Boxcar Children was popular. I guess I was an above-average reader before I discovered the fantasy genre of children’s and young adult books. But once I dipped my toe into Lloyd Alexander, Edgar Eager, Roald Dahl — I was hooked. I went from reading just some of the time to reading nearly all of the time. I passed up playdates so I could finish a book; I gave up pool parties and sleep-overs and movie nights. I distinctly recall tears streaming down my face as Taran’s mentor and father-figure Coll dies next to him in battle, near the end of Alexander’s The High King. And then I cried again when I turned the last page of the book, and fully realized that this story was done.

A sampling of the authors I devoured before the start of fifth grade, ’cause the nostalgia is fun: John Christopher (The White Mountains), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising), Lynn Reid Banks (The Indian in the Cupboard), Jane Yolen (Dragon’s Blood), Madeleine L’Engle (A Swiftly Turning Planet), Brian Jacques (Mossflower), Patricia A. McKillip (The Riddle-Master of Hed) and of course, anything by Bruce Coville (My Teacher is an Alien). I recall a few non-fantasy books that stood out; Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee really impressed me, for instance. But it wasn’t long before I was browsing the adult fantasy section for new material.

Before the end of sixth grade, I’d plowed through everything I could find by Robert Aspirin (Another Fine Myth), Terry Brooks (The Sword of Shannara), David Eddings (Pawn of Prophecy), Richard Adams (Watership Down), J. R. R. Tolkien (what did he write again?), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game). And I became a bit of a missionary for the sff cause. My sister agreed to read Ender’s Game if I read the ballet-themed Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden. Bold exploration for both of us, really.

Run away! Run away!

By the time I hit high school, I’d maxed out a lot of the science fiction and fantasy authors whose book covers looked interesting. So, grudgingly, I took a breather  and picked up some of the less awesome books that were always lying about our house. ‘Cause you’ve gotta read something while you eat your cereal in the morning. Only in retrospect do I really recognize how significantly these way-awesome “less awesome” books shaped me. I made my way through Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and then Cancer Ward; I’d eventually write a term paper on Solzhenitsyn. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Heller’s Catch-22. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Lewis’ Arrowsmith.

I wasn’t particularly discerning as a reader up until high school. I gravitated to fantasy and science fiction, but mostly, if it was a book and had words in it, I’d pick it up and give it a shot. Lucky for me my parents had a lot of intelligent stuff around the house. I think I was in tenth grade, reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, when I realized for the very first time that what I was reading was really high-quality prose. Like, it wasn’t just entertaining or a good story. I was starting to discern artistry in literature. It was a big moment for me.

Going into eleventh grade, I was asked to be the Editor-in-Chief of our high school literary magazine. I began fancying myself a thinker; it became more likely that I’d have Whitman or Emerson under my arm than Robert Jordan or Mercedes Lackey.

Reading Thoreau while backpacking with high school friends

College was a bit of a jumble for me. I started my freshman year on a full-tuition scholarship for ROTC. I did EMT training at the same time, with the sort of strange thought that participation in one would cancel out the other. While many of my fellow cadets were majoring in computer science or international affairs, I decided on philosophy and studio art. I fell hard for some of the rarified academic stuff that I encountered; stuff like Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and most anything by Roland Barthes. And once again, I ended up the Editor-in-Chief and illustrator of the college literary magazine.

I ended up overwhelmed by my varied responsibilities, and I dropped out of school for a few years. I comforted myself by reading the sff of my youth, watching a lot of movies, and dabbling in video production. When I returned back to school, I decided on a double major in English and media arts studies. Much as I loved studio art, it didn’t seem a viable career choice. My new wife prodded me all the way through to graduation. With a year left to go, my daughter was born. I’d push her in a stroller around the neighborhood reading critical studies of Moby-Dick, or to counter my constant fear of burn-out, novelizations of HALO and Doom. 

I thought I might try to become a professor; I received funding for academic papers and was asked to submit to professional journals. But as much as I loved poring over obscure texts, I could. not. finish. papers. There was always more to read! With every new source I found, the endeavor expanded. I’m glad that I came to terms with my paper-writing anxieties before deciding to go to grad school. In the end, I identify with something Michel de Montaigne said: “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.” It wasn’t worth the pressure of trying to master it all.

Today, I exercise my writing muscles chronicling the ups and downs of being a stay-at-home dad at my blog, Raised by my Daughter. I still make “art,” if by art you mean stick-figure comics made in Microsoft Paint. And I’ve combined my critical English major eye with my love for science fiction and fantasy in my book review blog, English Major versus the World. I dream of writing novels, and in the meantime, during nap-time and at the gym, I read them. One of my primary goals for the future is to have a really, really kick-awesome library in my home, with bookshelves on every wall, and maybe ladders and a special stand for a really gargantuan dictionary. I’m told that children’s educational outcomes are highly correlated with the number of books in a home. Just having tons of them around appears to be enough to make a big difference. So, until we get those fancy full-wall bookshelves, my daughter’s going to spend a lot of time stubbing her toes on books.

21 thoughts on “The Evolution of an Insatiable Bookslut: Neal’s Tale

  1. Wow! Sounds like we read a lot of the same books in our respective youths. I loved Jane Yolen’s pit-fighting dragon series, Indian in the Cupboard, the whole My Teacher is an Alien series, and Hatchet. And I also read all the same sci-fi/fantasy books.

  2. I loved Yolen’s Dragon’s Blood. It wasn’t a full trilogy when I was a kid. I had to purchase the last one as an adult. Totally worth it.

    My kids are spoiled on books. I almost never tell them no when there’s a book they want me to buy for them.

    • I used to daydream about the Pit Dragon series all the time. And I kinda had the hots for Akki.

      My local library has a section where they sell old books for between 10-50 cents, and I’ll usually let Addison choose one of those.

    • Yeah, I could live with that, Andrew.

      Rich Benefactor: So, you promise you’ll read a lot?

      Me: All the time.

      Rich Benefactor: ‘Cause I’m not playing around here. If I’m gonna pay you a million dollars per year, I’m going to need to see some really exceptional reading.

      Me: I will read until it hurts. I will read things that make me cry for joy. I will read things that explore the dark abyss of my soul. I will read things that make me laugh. I will read really dumb stuff, to better understand farce, satire, comedy. I will read philosophers, to understand the human condition. I will read children’s books. I will read the dictionary. I will read critics, and critics of critics. I will read as though my life depends on it.

      Rich Benefactor: Well…okay, we’ve got a deal. I’ve always wanted to have my very own reader on the pay-roll. Gives me something to brag about at parties.

  3. I so relate to this, except I am a girl so my tastes are slightly different. I used to smuggle books to parties and find quiet corners to finish reading rather than play pass the parcel. At boarding school I read wherever and whenever I could, and the first easy of every term seemed to be “what I did in the holidays” which for me was always a long reading list, at 10 I wrote an essay about Jane Eyre, which my teacher would NOT believe I had read…so I told her the whole story almost page by page. She never made that mistake again. My husband said “if I could read as fast as you, think how clever I would be now” the implication being that such a skill was wasted on me. For years now, I have read The Booker Prize short list and since it was published the long list, though it has gone through some weird manifestations of what the judges think are good, even great literature. A chef friend of mine thinks my flat is cluttered, but I discovered he meant that there were a lot of books! Are books clutter? Even when doubled stacked on bookshelves, piled horizontally which means I haven’t read them yet, in boxes which means I am not keeping them or horizontally in a different pile which means they are waiting to be put into the shelves…am I the only person who divides fiction and non-fiction, sorting the fiction alphabetically? History according to date, biography alphabetically by subject…and paperbacks ditto in a different bookshelf!
    Thank you for sharing your reading history, I picked up quite a few titles that look as though I should enjoy them.

    • Deborah, you sound like you had sophisticated taste, even as a ten-year-old. I wish I could say that I read the Booker short list every year; I’m pretty sure it would make me a better person. My foray into awards lists is pretty haphazard, even for the Fantasy and Sci-Fi stuff I love. Someday when I have more time, I’d love to read the short lists for: The Hugo Award, The Booker Prize, The Newbery Award, The Pulitzer Prize. Probably others. Maybe I need to take a speed reading course, ’cause I’m NOT a very fast reader.

  4. We read a lot of the same things. You and I would have been great friends in school – we could have sat near one another reading! LOL

    I remember waking up earlier than anyone at sleepovers and hunting up a book to read from whomever’s place I was at. Then I wised up and started bringing my own… but that’s how I discovered Piers Anthony – my neighbor’s parents had, for some reason, bought “A Spell for Chameleon” for my friend. I don’t think she EVER read it, but I read it three times….

    • Totally.

      People thought I was funny because I’d look for an empty table in the lunch room and read, even though I was basically liked by my peers. I had this idea that all the reading I did made me sort of soulful and mysterious. Ah, ten-year-old me…

      I never explored Piers Anthony…

      • Well, Piers Anthony has his good moments (the first two or three books in a series, and his standalones) and his bad moments (anything from book 4 on in a series…). Some of his standalones are freakin’ brilliant, and some of the earlier books in his series are equally brilliant, but alas, once he has an idea firmly in hand, he tends to run it into the ground…

  5. As many others had already said, we read a lot of the same things! Overall, mythology related books – I loved them as a child and I do love them now.

    I totally agree with your last paragraphs, about the importance of a house full of books to educate children and bring them into reading. I think my parents’ bookshelves, always full of interesting books, drew me into literature – and I will never thank them enough for this :)

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