Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A portable garden; let it grow!

I guess the whole thing started with "Danny and the Dinosaur."

My parents read it to me again and again. I can still see the pictures, still see the words on the page. I remember the dinosaur hiding in the museum. I remember thinking that was funny. Clever, even.

I don't know if you could call me a precocious child -- that seems pretentious -- but I could read before I ever stepped into a classroom. I loved it, yes, I did.

Somewhere in the second or third grade, neighbor Marilyn Johnson gave me a copy of her son Ben's Hardy Boys mystery, "While the Clocked Ticked." And I was a goner.

Thus the dominoes began to fall -- more Hardy Boys and "Where the Red Fern Grows," when the boy falls on the axe. Joyce Hill showed us the movie; my pictures were better than Hollywood's. Then came Encyclopedia Brown. Books on meteorology and football and politics.

By 9 or 10, maybe before, I was reading the papers -- the stories, the comics, the Mini Page, the TV guide.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that I would one day herd words. I was writing stories by the third or fourth grade. I can remember sitting on the playground at the old Brickey school, looking, learning, lamenting. When I got to Virginia Rains's fifth grade class, she would have me write one story a week to share with my chums. It continued that next year, Roy Andrews and the "Snood" mysteries. He put them up on a board at the front of the class. Jon Wright drew the cover.

These memories floated out of the mist of time last night while I was reading Roger Rosenblatt's "Unless it Moves the Human Heart," about the craft of writing. He says that all good writers are readers. I agree.

I would worry, fret even, over a writer who doesn't read. The late, great Wilma Dykeman once gave me great advice. To be a writer, she typed in an old-fashioned letter, write, write, write and read, read, read.

And so I did. Whenever I was happy or sad or lonely or fulfilled, I would write. And read.

I stayed with mysteries for a long time. Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle and Nero Wolfe. A bit later came Ian Fleming and Dorothy Gilman. I tried to read Spillane but didn't much care for him.

The summer between my eighth and ninth grade years I read Harper Lee. "To Kill A Mockingbird." Brilliant in its simplicity, that little girl's story.

Still later came Hemingway and Faulkner, Larry McMurtry and John Grisham. And Charles Dickens, the best and worst of times, and the New York Times. I can still recall the absolute thrill, the shiver that ran up my spine, when I first held a Sunday Times in my excited little fingers. Sunday afternoons were never the same.

I was assigned John Updike in college, the one about that boy at the A&P, and knew I'd stumbled onto something special. I could see the ringleader and her two sidekicks. I was there, in the store with them. I could see it, dammit. I could see it!

Then Sandra Clark introduced me to Pete Hamill. For the first time I became cognizant of language as rhythm, music keeping time with the metronome. I read "A Drinking Life," the perfect memoir with not a wasted word, and I knew. Yes. This was writing.

Other discoveries have been gold nuggets sifted out of the soil. Shiny. Sublime.

Pat Conroy and the broken sand dollars. Jay Gatsby and the blinking green light.

"In Cold Blood." That awful, awful night in Kansas.

A bit later I read Capote's novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's," evidence, if you need it, that even the cinema can't top a super scribe.

I remember the night I read "The Old Man and the Sea," in one sitting, a can of Coors hidden behind the chair. I could smell the saltwater and the sea air and see the look of grief on the old man's weathered face. I could see it, dammit. I could see it!

Reading is such a pleasure. It isn't passive, for one thing. The author sets the stage. You get to be the casting director. The pictures are in your head. And what's wonderful about it is your pictures are different from mine.

Someone once said that a good book is a garden carried around in one's pocket. Let it grow, I say. Let it grow!


Blogger Matt said...

It is amazing the things we remember sometimes. One of my childhood favorites was "Go Dog Go." You know me though, I was always more attached to the illustrations than I was the written text. As a kid, the Sunday comics page was especially intriguing because these artists managed to tell an amazingly coherent story 3-5 panels at a time.

Overall, reading fiction comes and goes for me though. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton, was the one that reminded me just how great the written word could be. He was a great writer in the modern age and its a shame we lost him so soon. Chuck Palahniuk has written some great novels as well, but they're certainly not mainstream.

Great piece, Jake. I really, really enjoyed this one and love the passion you have for the language.

9:06 PM  

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