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The Old Forever New Things October 6, 2009

Posted by monty in authors, books.
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My parents tell me I read Tolkein’s The Hobbit when I was five.  I’m thinking they’re mistaken, but it’s a good story to tell.  In my first actual memories of reading, I’m in 1st grade, reading to my classmates.  I was a show-off even then.  I vividly recall sitting in the school library reading a book to a girl (and thirty years later, not much has changed).  The book had pictures, and I remember that I pronounced the word acres like this: “a-CRESS.”  This, and the approving smile of the librarian, is all that sticks.

In my second first-grade memory, my teacher, Mrs. Culbertson, has asked me to read a book about explorer Kit Carson to the class while she ran briefly to the office on an errand.  I got to sit in my little plastic chair with the rest of the class arrayed before me, cross-legged on the carpet.  I felt powerful.  I read the book, and when there was a reference to someone (Kit, maybe) singing bluegrass music, I remember making a joke about how funny it would be to see “blue grass, you know, the kind on the ground, singing.”  Like many would-be comedians, I was a nerd and an attention whore, all rolled into one.

The point, I think, is that reading has always been hugely important in my life, yet I’ve never really written about it.  I’ve written frequently (some would say obsessively) about my love for music and movies, but rarely, if ever, about books.  I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly what it was I first loved about them, except maybe to use the old trope about seeing a movie in my head whenever I turned the page.  We didn’t go to movies much when I was little, so this might be why I devoured books voraciously.

How voraciously?  If you fast-forward a couple years, you’ll see me participating in a reading contest at school.  The premise was that of a journey through space.  You started at the sun, and after reading a couple books, you’d advance to Mercury.  A couple more would take you to Venus, and so on.  The person to make it through the galaxy fastest won something. I don’t remember what, but part of the prize was being interviewed on the local radio station.  That was me, and I remember bragging in my snotty 3rd grade way that I’d made it “to Pluto, and twelve books more.”  Perhaps not coincidentally, listening to the tape afterward was my first realization that I hated the sound of my voice.

readingIt was about this time that I discovered my love of fantasy.  That’s me on the right, reading the novelization of the movie Clash of the Titans. That was one of the movies my parents let me watch in the theater (also of note: Clash marked my first exposure to cinematic female nudity), and it was the first movie I became enthralled with.  I spent the rest of the summer reading the 304-page-long novelization, reveling in the opportunity to see the movie again, in a different form.  Maybe a year later I stumbled across Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and I truly graduated to the world of adult books a year or so later – in 6th grade now – when I discovered Terry Brooks and his Shannara series (although at the time it was just a trilogy).  I was never a huge fan of science fiction the way I think a lot of boys that age tend to be, but fantasy really tripped my trigger.  Swords, spells, dragons, tunics, buckskin boots – give me a story about an elf and I was in heaven.

stephenking-cujo All that changed in 7th grade.  I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly, why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old ass.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  I was reading about elves when I could have been reading about this all along?  Ho-lee shit.  Fortunately, this was in the late 80’s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order.  This led me to other horror authors, but none of them really passed the test.  The one that lasted the longest was Dean Koontz.  His early, trashy novels were pretty great, but then he got all pious and moralizing and sucky and I lost interest.  I dabbled in some of the other horror novels that littered the racks at Hook’s Drugs and Bonfiglio Pharmacy, but none of them really packed the same punch.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first appearance of my love of author over genre.  I didn’t love horror; I loved what Stephen King did with it.  There’s a difference, but I didn’t know it yet.

EllisonAs much as I loved King’s books, it turns out the most important thing to come out of my exposure to his writing – the thing that ultimately influenced the person I became – was his discussion of Harlan Ellison in his memoir, Danse Macabre. Harlan Ellison is one of literature’s great overlooked writers.  A contemporary of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Ellison is at least their equal, and like them, he’s known primarily as a science fiction writer, even though his science fiction stories make up only a small fraction of his total output.  He’s won a slew of awards, collaborated with Isaac Asimov, written one of the best-loved episodes of Star Trek (“The City on the Edge of Forever”), had one of his stories (“A Boy and His Dog”) turned into a movie starring Don Johnson, and sued James Cameron for ripping off his idea for the Terminator series.  I immediately fell in love with his short stories, but I also fell in love with his temperament.  He was an irascible rabble-rouser, by all accounts difficult to deal with.  An outspoken proponent of civil rights, he marched with MLK from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  He wrote in favor of civil disobedience and against repressive governments.  All of this spoke to the bleeding-heart liberal that was just starting to develop in my personality, and it added another layer of admiration to what I already felt for his writing.  As for how Ellison influenced my reading habits, he was, in short, the first author I read who wasn’t popular.  This “outlaw reading” appealed to me.  It not just marked me out as different (which, being an angsty little jerk, I liked), but it gave me license to seek out other authors no one else in the rural shithole where I lived had ever heard of.  Harlan Ellison was the gateway to everything I read today.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t have discovered these authors without him, but it certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly.

And what do I read today?  As I discovered with Stephen King, it’s authors, not genres.  I love the hard-boiled modern noir of James Ellroy, the offbeat social satire of T.C. Boyle, and the existential loneliness inherent in everything written by Cormac McCarthy.  Who else?  Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, Russell Banks, Richard Price, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, David Sedaris, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Tom Robbins, Irvine Welsh, Tom Perrotta, Michael Chabon, Will Self … I could just keep typing.  But I won’t.

The important overlap between my love of books and movies and music is that I’m just looking for something that resonates.  I don’t much care what’s cool or hip – I just want something good. I still read Stephen King.  As soon as I finish Dave Eggers’ What Is the What (soon; it’s a challenging read), I’m moving on to David Cross’ I Drink for a Reason. The next book I buy will be James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover, and I’ve got Dan Simmons’ Drood and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places arriving in the mail any day now.  I just love reading.  Give me something to kickstart the movie in my head, and I’m hooked.


Current listening:

Velvet Underground white light

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat



1. Amanda - October 6, 2009

I LOVE that picture of you reading. I also got to be the reading nerd except that I didn’t read to my classmates, I got to read to a third grade class. Much better because I was older and they loved me.

2. Katie Reed - October 6, 2009

Have you read Danielewski’s House of Leaves? It’s friggin’ nuts.

3. rcm - October 6, 2009

House of Leaves is amazing. But Danielewski’s follow-up, Only Revolutions, just looks like it’s too much work.

And Amanda, that picture of me is really funny, because my parents were furious that I was ignoring everything on our vacation because I just wanted to read. I think the picture was taken before they started beating me.

4. Amanda - October 7, 2009

Well, your parents are pretty scary. I could imagine John and Mary Ann pushing you down the stairs for reading.

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