I remember the moment, the slow walk across the second grade classroom, to one of those bookshelves that could be pushed around on wheels. This one was parked, though, and I was heading for it.
What was I thinking at the time? That, I can’t remember now, I can only recall the purposeful walk, as if something about that bookshelf called to me. And when I got there, I found a book that would change my life. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.
I don’t know why I picked it. I shouldn’t have. I was one of the worst readers in the class, and I can remember tearful sessions with my parents at home as I tried to make my way through the simplest of texts. This book was far more difficult than anything I’d ever attempted to read before.
Perhaps it was the story, of Henry Huggins determined to take a stray dog home, the uncooperative bus driver indifferent to the delivery of Henry’s heart’s desire. At the time I had no dog myself. Did I want a dog, was that it? I can’t remember. Perhaps it was Henry’s quiet insistence in keeping this companion, his inventive persistence at achieving his goal. Maybe Henry’s example inspired me, helped me to teach myself how to use the dictionary so I could to make my way through this book filled with difficult words.
Because I needed a companion too. Outside the closed door of my room, my parents’ inexhaustible battles played themselves out, arguments I could further muffle by entering the world of a book, though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I’m sure. But I must have understood that I needed to learn how to read, in order to open the invisible door I sensed was there. Once I’d navigated Henry Huggins, other books easily followed, other companions: Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and then, as I grew older, a succession of adventure books set on fantastic worlds, packed with swords and gunplay. I wonder now, as I write this, was all that drama a way of domesticating the domestic warfare still waged by my mother and father, a way to ease the sting of conflict?
Or was some form of escape the secret desire, the traveling to the distant worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, following John Carter to Mars, Carson Napier to Venus and David Innes to the center of the earth. Even now, I can’t believe that I can remember their names, or that Mars was called Barsoom.
Whatever the desire, I read so much that eventually my parents forced me to go outside and play, and they talked to each other—and I overheard—of taking me to a child specialist to see if there was anything wrong with me. And still I devoured books, increasing the real estate inside me where I could find a place of my own, where my heroes always managed to slip away from disaster.
But no book could prevent the disaster that occurred when I was eleven, when arguments seemed to serve no further purpose, when my mother tried to stab my father with a knife, when on another occasion she strangled him with a towel around his neck, his head stuck between two rungs of a banister. In both cases I worked my way between my struggling parents, and at this moment as I write I’m struck by a new thought, that perhaps all those years of reading adventure stories had given me a vocabulary of action, a means to save my father’s life, as if I’d been preparing, through books, for those charged moments without knowing it.
Some poison had been leached by that violence, and in the months and years that followed my parents reverted back to the rituals of verbal sparring. What had set all this in motion, the steps to that terrible brink, and then the retreat? I couldn’t know.
A change had occurred in me, too. My beloved adventure books had somehow lost their adventure. I would still read obsessively, but now dutifully, because the literary rituals of crisis and escape felt somehow empty—what I read no longer gave me what I wanted, though I didn’t yet know what I wanted.
One day in seventh grade I ordered my usual stack of books from the Scholastic Books Service; one of them was an abridged version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A little skeptical, I figured I could skip past the peace parts if they proved too boring. When the nine or so books I’d ordered finally arrived I saved Tolstoy’s novel for last—even abridged, the book was 500 pages long, longer than any book I’d ever read before. But its length was not the challenge, not in the way the vocabulary of Henry Huggins had been for me years ago. The challenge was of an entirely different order.
I can remember the moment I realized I’d stumbled into new territory. I was sitting on a lawn chair in the backyard, beneath the clothesline, in the shadow of a tree. I set Tolstoy’s novel on my lap, then picked it up and checked the page number. Page 73. I can actually remember the page number. And what most struck me was that, after reading 73 pages, of a novel titled War and Peace, nobody had died yet, there was none of the action that I’d come to expect from all my previous reading. And most surprising, I didn’t care. Because I knew that this was already the best book I’d ever read. And nobody had died yet. Now how could that be?
Here was action of a different sort: the action of the heart, the revelation of interior lives, the drama of inner conflict, all of which gave voice to my growing awareness of my own secret self. Here was a vast world that wasn’t Mars, or Venus, or the center of the earth. What had once been the pleasure of escape was now a pleasure of a different sort—that of a journey, a way to map inner landscapes. And a way, perhaps, to make sense of the tangled knots of my family, what we’d tied ourselves into.
But never quite to make sense, never to completely unravel, because the books I read now offered no easy solutions, and that was the confounding joy of them, the messy truth no matter how elegant the prose or canny the structure.
Such books gave me my future, not so much my future as a writer, though of course there is that, but my future as a human, a fallible human engaged in the futile attempt to know oneself and others. Each new book, like Zeno’s arrow, gets closer to but never hits the target. There is no easy or final understanding, but without the attempt, who can bear to live the isolation that is the alternative? And the more I read, the more I think that all readers have secret histories connected to the books they love, the books that have served for them as havens, or interventions.
So every day, I open a book. Its words were once the thoughts of another human being, thoughts that could have remained private but are instead lined up in row after row on each page. An invitation to begin, to take the first steps into another mind, to step and step until there are no steps but instead the blessed drama of art’s illusion delivering the pith of human contradiction, the greatest gift of one mind offering itself to another, the foreign air we best breathe.