“When I was a child, I thought as a child and spoke as a child. And when I became a man, I took that child out back and had him shot.” The late Phil Hartman on NewsRadio.
I’m not certain at what point in my life being a “reader” became part and parcel of who I am. I remember rereading There’s a Monster at the End of this Book, despite the fact that the story is only a surprise the first time through. Spoiler: In a twist worthy of Shyamalan, Grover turns out to be the monster.
Summer evenings, my body still radiating the heat it absorbed during an afternoon playing in the neighborhood pool, I read books about the Jersey Devil, and ghosts, and sundry other topics of questionable value. I spent one autumn working my way through a series of animal stories, about which I remember very little. They were vaguely folklore-ish, and the animals were named things like “Crow” and “Bear.” Perhaps they were a sanitized version of the Uncle Remus stories.
Contrary to societal expectations, my inclination toward fantasy grew more pronounced the older I got. As what might now be termed a “tween,” I read more and more fantasy, especially books by David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist. I was especially enchanted by Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and Song of Albion, both of which drew heavily on Celtic settings and mythology.
My high school years witnessed a decline in my reading habits. Beset by endless hours of homework, I read less and less for pleasure. When I did read, I tended toward more standard fare: Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, and so on. Little effort, easily digested. During one snowstorm that knocked out the electricity in my neighborhood, my friends were amazed (and perhaps a little disturbed) to find out that I had spent some time reading. When some of my friends returned back from senior week that summer, they were astonished that, while they were gone, I had read not one, but two books. So perhaps I was always more of a reader than I remember.
I did not attend college directly after high school. I worked menial jobs. My friends all moved on with their lives. Adrift, I killed time with what I knew best: I read. The summer after graduation saw me reading a variety of books, from Norman F. Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages, to Ivanhoe, to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and short stories by Faulkner. My mind was open. Irritatingly, I absorbed and regurgitated the style of whomever I was reading: A letter to a friend at college was unwittingly written in prose reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott. The transition from Scott to Faulkner was difficult and jarring. I read Orwell, and was in a rotten mood for days after finishing 1984.
I spent a few sunny days that autumn painting the wrought iron railing on my parents’ back porch. I read during breaks. I read Cold Mountain, which remains a favorite of mine. I tiptoed through the creepy monastery at the center of The Name of the Rose. I was amazed. By the springtime I was reading Hemingway for the first time. After that, I started reading Cormac McCarthy. As if by osmosis, the stories became part of my being.
I read more widely during the three years between high school and college than I did at any other time of life. At no time before or since was I more open to the stories writers were telling, to their points of view. Of course, my choices were mainstream and determined by literary “authorities”: Publishers, reviewers, list makers. And my ignorance was vast. I didn’t read in the sciences or much in the humanities. Indeed, one holdover from that time is my amazement at how much there is to know, how little of it I’ve been exposed to, and how ignorant I really am.
College exposed me to new ideas, but not to new literature (fiction or nonfiction). By the time I enrolled, I had exposed myself to “classic” American fiction and a wide swath of history. College, for me, was not about broadening my knowledge of facts, but about disciplining my habits of thought. One result of that process was the synthesis of everything I had absorbed during the previous three years. Context. And so on.
I graduated from college almost 10 years ago now. I’m still a reader. My habits vary: I cycle through periods of preferring nonfiction to fiction, and vice versa. Sometimes I’ll read more, sometimes less. I haven’t stopped. When I was young, my parents had shelves filled with the books my father had read, all hardcovers. By the time I started college, my dad had stopped reading. He was tired. He no longer had the energy. I haven’t reached that point yet.
Still, reading is not for me the exciting thing it once was. It is accompanied by anxiety: Should I be reading fiction? Am I wasting my time? Is there a better book on my shelf right now? Should I be doing something “productive”? Worse, it is rarely the mind-expanding process I enjoyed as a younger man. In fact, it’s often a chore, a compulsion that demands satisfaction. There are endless trips to used bookstores, hunting and gathering missions for those titles that have eluded me. There is staying on top of the latest news and reviews. There is list making, endless list making, lists grown swollen with titles I’ll never get around to reading.
I’m rarely surprised now when I read a book. My mind isn’t blown. My perspective doesn’t change. Maybe it’s a side effect of getting older, of having figured out who you are and where you stand. Settled, comfortable, I’m better able to shrug off anything that challenges my staid point of view. During my very first college class, the professor said, “Most people don’t read books that challenge them. They read books with which they agree.” I vowed to myself that I would be one of those people. But here I am, reading the same things over and over again.
Is there a monster at the end of the book?