Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Books entered my life

When I hear the cicadas sing, I am drawn back to the endless August days of my boyhood, waiting for school to start again, overtaken by the heat and boredom, living like a savage without clothes or custom, when I could pretend to be anyone, standing at all the open doors of the world. In my lassitude, my dreaminess, I'd lie on the lawn under the silver maple and read books. Ian Fleming, Mark Twain, Alistair MacLean, Isaac Asimov, the Golden Nature Guides, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, Madeline L'Engle, Agatha Christie, the Alfred Hitchcock Mysteries, Robert Louis Stevenson, and so many more. Of the abridged classics, my favorites were Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Ivanhoe. On lazy Sundays, I'd pester my old man to read aloud -- I can still hear him declaim the witches' spell from Macbeth, Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain," and Emily Dickinson's "A narrow fellow in the grass." Snakes scare me still, in poems and in real life.

Was I born to read? It certainly felt as though reading was in my nature. My mother called it an
inclination. But there was surely more to it than nature. I was surrounded by books, my parents were readers, books were discussed at table, and they were taken seriously. My father fancied Camus and Nabokov -- I heard those names long before I could read anything they'd written. He loved the Russians Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy and the sea stories of Joseph Conrad. One of my earliest experiences of literature was listening to my father read passages from Typhoon while I sat on the armrest of the living room couch and watched his pipe smolder in the ashtray. Conrad -- like Chopin -- was a hero to a Kozlowski. Is it any wonder that I too am drawn to those two Poles?

My mother went to the library once a week and began taking me along before I entered kindergarten. Her favorites were Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Renault, Josephine Tey, historicals and mysteries mainly, with the occasional bestseller or current literary sensation thrown in for good measure, books by Michener, Cheever, Irwin Shaw, Capote, Salinger, Malamud. Books like
The Group or The Agony and the Ecstasy or Fail-Safe. Paperbacks with racy covers like Faulkner's Sartoris or John O'Hara's Butterfield 8. Occasionally, we'd take the Bee-Line bus to Hempstead and shop for books at Womrath's, followed by BLTs at a coffee shop on North Franklin Street. Those were the only times I was allowed to drink Coca-Cola.

Those books of my parents had such allure, from the cover art to the smell of the paper and binding glue, from the pride of place they were accorded in the design of the living room "wall units" to the sense of accomplishment I earned upon learning new words, new ideas, and new ways of understanding relationships between people and the world. The invisible was made visible even as my vocabulary got bigger and more complex. Often such knowledge was a burden -- sometimes it made me cry, or get scared -- but it was still better than ignorance.

No one has yet unknotted the two threads that form the mind -- nature and nurture -- and definitively pronounced which is the longer or stronger. Perhaps I was born to read. Perhaps my upbringing had everything to do with it. I know that my life would have been different without books. They are essential to me, like air or water. But because they are, I cannot see past them or through them to objectivity. I know plenty of people who live without them, good people whose world is different than mine. I will beckon to them and invite them into my world of books. I will tell them that there's plenty of room for all kinds of readers here. They don't have to read what I read. Still, they will often decline the offer -- reading is slow, it takes time and patience, it's a habit harder to acquire as an adult than as a child, and they are busy trying to make a living. How can I reproach them?

William Carlos Williams wrote, "I have learned much in my life/from books/and out of them/about love." He goes on, "Death/is not the end of it." Love, that is, not books.

1 comment:

  1. I can vouch for your reading habit from high school days. You had a better vocabulary than anyone else I knew and great critical thinking skills - traits still apparent today.

    The phrase “- reading is slow, it takes time and patience, it's a habit harder to acquire as an adult than as a child….” catches my attention. Studies and news reports assert that many of today’s non-reading adults were reading more as kids than kids read today. This bodes badly for us.

    After all, why do all that hard work of conjuring imagery while reading a novel or straining to comprehend nonfiction when one can be “entertained” by some boorish crap on TV. Further evidence that higher primates are lazy by nature.

    Even my dog would rather lie around, get his belly rubbed, lick where his balls used to be, or chew on a bone than exercise. That wasn’t always true when he was a pup.