When Reading Meant Everything
All of the books pictured here came into my life between ages 14 to 20, during the years 1989 through 1994, while I was in high school or the first two years of college, and each of them changed my life in its own way. It was a bleak time for me; my parents got divorced, my older brother got married and moved out, and my father remarried quickly, all in 1990, and once high school was done in ’92, our inability to afford much in the way of college meant that I would continue to live at home and attend a local school while working full-time. I was tethered to a life I didn’t want to lead in a place I didn’t want to be, and books (and music and movies, too) were my gateway to something greater than what I saw around me.
Though, as a young kid, I was something like the bullied Bastian in The Neverending Story who escaped from the world through books, what I have found in books and magazines (and music and movies) since then is expansion. By high school, I was no longer reading to get away from the world— I was reading to know it better, to see and to know more of it, to glimpse ways of life I hadn’t imagined, even when I couldn’t physically leave where I was.
Beyond the fantasy works of JRR Tolkien, Ursula K LeGuin, and Madeleine L’Engle that I enjoyed when I was young, the first book that truly changed my life was Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a work I never would have chosen for myself but which was assigned by Mrs. Brock in ninth-grade English. In this mid-century French novel, a man named Meursault’s passive refusal to participate in aspects of life that he doesn’t care about causes him to be taken for a sociopath when he stabs and kills a man in an altercation that results from a misunderstanding. At fourteen, what I saw in Meursault was not a heartless murderer who deserved the death penalty, but a man who was utterly exasperated with having a life he didn’t want being crammed down his throat.
That same year, I borrowed another book that I had seen on a friend’s shelf, knowing nothing more about it than its intriguing title: Beyond Good and Evil. This work of philosophy by 19th-century German existentialist Friedrich Nietszche, was way over my head, though I did manage to finish it, urged forward by having people constantly say that I had no business reading such things. They had thrown down the gauntlet, issued a challenge, and I wouldn’t be bested. I’ll admit freely that I only understood parts of what I read, but for me, it was like Rocky’s goal in the first movie: I wanted go the distance. I knew I couldn’t beat Beyond Good and Evil, but I also wouldn’t be able to hold my head up in the neighborhood if I got knocked out by it. Some teenagers wanted a high ACT score or a sports championship, I wanted to read and understand books that no one around me read.
Later in high school, two other vastly dissimilar books moved my understanding of literature and reading forward again: Edgar Lee Master’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthology and Danny Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, a tell-all biography of Jim Morrison. Though I don’t remember when I encountered that latter book, Spoon River came to me through a theatrical adaptation we put on when I was a junior in high school. (The book, published in 1915, contains interconnected monologues spoken from the grave by the town’s dead citizens.) After the show was over, I went out and bought the book to read all of the poems, and this experience led me to two realizations: that people carry things inside themselves that the rest of us never know, and that I loved poetry. Where The Stranger was the first literary work that made me look deeply and critically at the world outside, Spoon River made me look deeply and critically at the world inside. By contrast, that second work – a mass-market paperback about hippie-era Los Angeles – taught me something that neither Camus, nor Nietzsche, nor Masters could: that writing could be cool, and that nonfiction could be, too. Books didn’t have to be dull and droll— they could be about rock stars.
After high school, reading became a way of life. Working, attending a commuter college, and living at home with my mother severely limited “the college experience” for me, which led me regularly and often into the arms of literature. Reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans one after the other at age eighteen fertilized the seed that was planted by No One Here Gets Out Alive— a life lived on the edge could be a writer’s material. Discovering the Beats then led me to Henry Miller’s lurid and wild Tropic of Cancer and to Richard Brautigan’s quirky novels Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar. My affection for Kerouac also led me to his literary idol Thomas Wolfe, whose florid and sprawling Look Homeward, Angel is heartbreakingly sad and beautiful. Somewhere in there, Walt Whitman came into my purview via Allen Ginsberg, and along the way, possibly via Camus, I found Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer (Le Gran Meaulnes), which is still my favorite coming-of-age novel.
Stranded in pre-internet Alabama, reading meant everything. These were the years between the release of Nirvana’s Bleach and the suicide of Kurt Cobain; during the years that REM put out Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster; in the five-year span that started with Say Anything and ended with Reality Bites . . . And it makes me sad that I don’t see young people reading like I used to, for the reasons I used to. And don’t tell me that anything on the internet is even a remote parallel, and don’t compare the books I just listed to Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. These literary idols of mine didn’t offer readily available screen adaptations or collectible merchandise to garner revenue from my isolated and desperate teenage sense that there absolutely must be something more out there, something more than what was at arm’s length. Back then, there were only the words on the pages, words were so masterfully strung together that nothing else was necessary. Not followers or subscribers, not clicks or likes, not trending or sales ranking, not chat rooms or fan conventions . . . just the words on the page. And, with reading, that’s the way it ought to be.