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.