It is common wisdom that we are all greatly affected by the things of our childhood. Our families, parents and siblings, our friends, our environment, where we lived, what we saw and felt and did, all played a role.
And what we read.
As a young boy, the first books I read were biographies, frequently of sports heroes, such as Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Roger Maris. These books were simple extensions of what I enjoyed everyday, in “real life”; for a time, baseball was everything.
Later, I found out there were books you could read on your own that told stories. After “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and “Ivanhoe,” I discovered that there were modern books that could be read for pure enjoyment and a mania for the Hardy Boys began. It became such a jones that my father took me once a month by bus to the “big city” (Elizabeth, NJ) to visit a used bookstore, where hardcover copies could be bought for anywhere from a nickel to a quarter, depending on condition. This was before the famed pictorial Hardy Boys covers, so they were all a shabby grey/tan and brown, without dust jackets.
Reading something more contemporary was just the ticket. Though hardly resembling anyone I knew in real life, it was easier to imagine myself as the plucky Joe or handsome Frank of the Hardy clan than the beleaguered David Balfour of 19th century British fiction, even if the Brothers Hardy never seemed to have to ride the bus or walk to school or frequent used bookshops to make those nickels go further.
Yes, it was slim pickins’ in teen fiction back in the days before the dinosaurs. Still, we didn’t know what we were missing because, frankly, it hadn’t arrived yet.
Time came when this love for adventure novels, as well as a rapacious appetite for comics and Mad Magazine, morphed into something else altogether. For me, that something was literature. And, fortuitously enough, I can actually place the moment. Let me explain.
To this day, I have less than a handful of pictures of myself before the age of 20. One of the pictures I do have, however, is of me in the high school cafeteria, reading a copy of “Lost Horizon.” That particular moment is indicative of a bigger moment of discovery.
“Lost Horizon” had swept me away. It was exotic, strange, mysterious, and something else; it was a quest, a quest for meaning. When I look back on this little masterpiece, I find many of the elements of things that would become very important in my life; an interest in Eastern culture, in a life of the mind, in things mystic and lyrical and “other.” What probably could have been simply labeled a bit of escapist fiction for a teen not much comfortable in his own skin – and, really, it is the rare teen who is – became an introduction to the world of literature not simply as entertainment but as avocation.
When we look to the great books, we are, in fact, often looking for ourselves. We measure who we are or who we want to be or who we have become against those characters we find living and breathing within those pages. When I was ten years old, did I have Joe’s moxie or Frank’s savoir faire or David Balfour’s courage? In my early teens, could I share Hugh Conway’s desire for something beyond the veil? Later, would I know Nick Carraway’s shame, Leo Bloom’s compassion, or Henry Haller’s despair?
Might I even transcend time itself, like a certain sensitive anonymous narrator, in one of the greatest novels ever written?
The answer to all these questions is yes, I did all these things and more.
My avocation became a vocation; I became a librarian and have been now for over 30 years. I literally found myself in books and have been lucky enough to be able to share that richness with others each and every day.
And it all started, more or less, right here: