Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Do You Remember Not Being Able to Read? or The Books That Changed My Life

   The most intense memories of my childhood all revolve around books. When I was three my grandmother gave me a grade school reading primer from the 1950's. At 300 pages, it was huge for a children's book. My grandmother wanted to read the stories to me but I refused. I desperately wanted to read them myself. With the logic of a three year old, I had decided that if I were able to read, it would make me an adult. I spent most of my childhood obsessed with finding ways to grow-up.
   The primer was full of individual stories about a group of children. Each story was between two and ten pages long and each story was preceded by a small picture. I spent hours just looking at each picture and trying to force myself to be able to read the words. One picture, one story, captivated me. A girl stood in her bedroom and her bed was in disarray. The covers were rumpled in such a way that it appeared, in the small picture, that something terrible was being covered up by that wrinkled blanket. The guilty look on the little girl's face convinced me! She had murdered her little brother, and he was hidden in that bed!
   I was enormously disappointed when I was finally able to read the story and there was nothing hidden under the folds of the girl's comforter. The girl was simply worried that she would be in trouble if her mother realized she hadn't made her bed before going out to play. What a let down.
   The only other thing that I really remember from that book is that squirrel was the largest, and most complicated word in the English language, and that one should never eat wild berries.

   Fast forward three years and most of the joy has been taken out of reading. There are only so many, "always brush your teeth", "don't run with scissors", "strangers are bad", stories that a child can read. It seemed to me then that all the books in the world were there to remind us of the rules. Then I found the library.
   My elementary school was small and our library was minuscule. Aside from four shelves of reference texts, there were only six shelves of fictional story books. For this reason, each grade was only allowed to check out certain books. That meant that in first grade I had my choice between picture books about baby animals, and Dr. Seuss. Luckily, I was sneaky. I would choose very thin books off of the third and fourth grader's shelves in the hopes that the student aid library assistants wouldn't know the difference. I was only caught once. There was one book that I checked out at least a dozen times.
   This might have been the first book that made me want to be a writer. The idea that I could choose the way the story would end enthralled me. (I really sucked at choosing. I don't think I ever found the "Supergirl lives happily ever after" story line. I mostly only found the "Supergirl is murdered horribly" ones.)
   After getting in trouble for repeatedly checking out books I was not supposed to, I was banned from the library for a little while and my mother bought me one of those Scholastic book subscriptions. Every month they would send me two new books. These books were mostly awful but one of them changed my life. The Doll in the Garden was the book that convinced me that reading was better than tv and nintendo put together. It was an eerie, morbid, ghost story about dying children. It was also the first book that ever made me cry. It was the book that instilled a life long love of reading. This was the book that finally made reading fun for me. I remember it distinctly, a kind of click. "Oh, THIS is why reading is fun. I get it now."
 Fast forward another 7 years. One day, when I was 13, my mom took me out to the movies, just the two of us. I don't remember why I was given the special privilege of a day out alone with my mother. I have 3 younger sisters and being alone with either of my parents was a rare event. Now, my mother's choice of movies might seem a little extreme for a 13 year old, but I was one of those children that was never really a child. I was bookish and full of fantastical daydreams. I spoke like an adult from the time I was 8. Other kids thought I was weird... and I was. My best memories of childhood involve dressing in frilling nightgowns and pretending to be a forest nymph. So when my mother took me into the theater, she didn't think twice about taking me to see the most intriguing movie currently playing, even if it was rated R. I was, after all, her pint sized adult child. Which is how I ended up seeing Interview with the Vampire in the theater. Afterwards my mother worried the movie had been too graphic. (There were boobs) I tried to reassure her by informing her that I had been reading her (much more graphic) romance novels for at least three years. Harlequin taught me about the birds and the bees.
   That movie kind of obsessed me. It was so dark and beautiful and sad and violent. I still think it's one of the best movies ever made. It so expertly captured the tone of Rice's novel, which of course I had not yet read. I didn't even know there WAS a novel until spring break of that year when my parents took us on vacation.
   Las Vegas is not a place for children. The different hotels do have special amenities for little kids, tiny theme parks and the like, but I was BORED. I was too young to have any real fun and too old to enjoy collecting skeeball tickets. At the hotel, I had a bit of a crisis. I had been keeping a secret from my mother for about a year. It was personal, and embarrassing, and I knew if I told her that she would tell my dad. But, I didn't have any money and I needed to buy the necessary toiletries. At home, I had always been able to steal hers without her noticing. When I told my mother, she shrieked and hugged and giggled. I'm sure my face was beet red. I made her promise not to tell my father and she gave me a $20 bill and sent me down to the little convenience store on the first floor of the hotel. It was my first time buying them myself and I was mortified so I dawdled around in the little gift shop. That's when I saw it. Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice, in paperback. I had enough money, but I knew my mom would mad if I didn't bring back all of her change. Then again, she had drug me on this enormously boring vacation to a city created for adults. I bought the book, consequences be damned.
   I spent the rest of our vacation wanting to be left alone so I could read. I think that vacation was when I got a reputation for being a taciturn, contrary, stick in the mud. Seventeen years later, my family still sees me that way.
   That book had an effect on me that no other book ever has. It pulled at my imagination so strongly that the real world seemed petty, trite, and unimportant. Just as I had started to grow out of the world of fantasy, built for children, Interview with the Vampire showed me that there was an equally vivid world of fantasy for adults. Instead of Prince's and Princesses climbing towers and riding unicorns, I could have dark beasts stalking the night in human guise. Danger, intrigue, and passion, could replace my fairy tales.
   I applaud anyone who managed to make it this far into what is probably my longest blog post ever. I'm nearly done. While there are many other novels that I enjoyed, or somehow impacted me as a child, these are the four most important. One, for making me desperate to learn to read. The second for teaching me that I can create my own stories. The third for making me truly enjoy reading for the first time. And the fourth for allowing me to cling to my childlike imagination even as I was becoming an adult.
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