“READ A BOOK.”
I spend far too much time on social media. Lately, when I see the phrase above, it’s on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or some such, it’s used in the middle of an argument, and it’s an insult. And that breaks my heart.
Why? Because I love books. Books give me a space to breathe. Reading a book for fun is one of my favorite activities in life. Reading has afforded me countless hours of pleasure, learning, security, expansion, and wonder. Books are capable of meeting me in a variety of moods and of satisfying a plethora of needs. They are a safe haven, a thrill ride, a reward for hard work, a retreat, a university, a church. It’s one of the few pure pleasures I have that has no downside, no drawback, is only healthy. That this blessed activity might be used as an insult, especially in this era when stupidity is worn as a badge of pride, and elected officials are actively working to make ignorance a matter of policy, seems to me to be a tragic irony of epic proportions.
My love of books goes back to my beginnings. After making it through the requisite amount of Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss and what have you, my first great reading adventure was E.B. White’s Stuart Little, a story about a miniature human, shaped like a mouse, and all his trials and travails. It’s not hard to see what the appeal of such a book would have for a young boy, what with Stuart piloting miniature ships and cars, going down drains to fetch his mother’s wedding ring, being rolled up in a window blind and saving his bird friend from a cat with his miniature bow and arrow.
Today, when I look back, the most interesting thing about the book is Stuart’s emotional complexity. He’s not always a pleasant person, and can be self-centered and petulant. But he’s also courageous and intelligent and loyal. In other words, he’s a pretty complicated human, more complicated, it seems, than you would expect in a protagonist created to entertain prepubescent children.
My next great sea change in my love of reading was comic books. There were many kinds–Donald Duck, Archie, Richie Rich, classic literature, etc.–but I was drawn, of course, to superhero comics. Early on, when faced with a choice between two, my mother suggested I take the Marvel one “because they have a better vocabulary.”
I never looked back, and am a Marvel man to this day. I can remember early on, before I could even read, necessarily, being enthralled by an issue of the Avengers (#102 to be exact) when the Vision, the green-garbed “synthezoid” (an android who is “every inch a human being, except all his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials”–Avengers #57) punched his fists through two would-be muggers, causing them unbearable agony. Seeing something like that when you’re four years old will get you hooked.
Then, when I was nine years old, came Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a book that I picked up solely because of the title. Nothing about that book was anything like what I expected it to be. First, it wasn’t one long, continuous story at all, but a series of short stories connected only by the fact that they took place on Mars, a planet that seemed to alter and change from one story to the next. But more importantly, the book introduced me to an emotional landscape I wasn’t expecting.
The first full story, (there are several, smaller, interstitial stories designed to thread the book together) “Ylla”, was about a Martian woman who has precognitive dreams about an astronaut from Earth who she hopes will take her away from her stagnant marriage. Reading this story as a child, it felt like one of the first times I felt adult emotions, almost like communal memory. I understood more than my experience. But then “The Third Expedition,” also known as “Mars Is Heaven,” was one of the best horror stories I had ever read. The Martian Chronicles covered a lot of ground for me, and I was blown away.
In junior high (what they call “middle school” nowadays) I remember being at the school library and a young woman I was crushing on checked out a stack of sixteen books. I promptly checked out fifteen books myself. One of those was a book called Of Mice and Men. I only checked that out because one of my many monster movie books, Thomas Aylesworth’s Movie Monsters (natch), mentioned that Lon Chaney Jr., star of Universal’s The Wolf Man, was actually a very good actor, which you would know if you ever saw any of his non-monster movies, like Of Mice and Men.” So, basically, my love of horror movies led me to John Steinbeck. And if you’ve ever read Of Mice and Men, you know that as far as novels go, it’s a short, stiff, kick in the stomach. Steinbeck’s been one of my favorites ever since.
When I was a boy, in school we flat-out were never directed toward a Black author. Not one. We didn’t learn about them. I don’t remember their existence even being acknowledged. So, as a teenager, I sought out books by Black authors on my own. In those early days of exploration, the single most impactful such book that I came across was Native Son, by Richard Wright, and it was like a bomb going off in my head. Like other books I’ve mentioned here, it was not at all what I expected. Mainly because Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of the story, kills innocents.
But Wright didn’t just present the raw crimes. He went deeper, talking not just about what drove Bigger on the surface, but also about the motivations that were beneath his conscious psyche, and the motivations beneath those, and the motivations beneath those. Wright didn’t excuse Bigger, but he did explain him, and as a young man I found that to be a revelatory experience. Quite naturally, Native Son led to other favorites: Going To Meet the Man, by James Baldwin; Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor; Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver (another bomb); and Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas.
Just out of college, doing summer repertory theatre in the wilds of Moscow, Idaho, I came across One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, another book I picked up solely because of the title. It took me four tries to get through it, and the fact that I did it still surprises me. Usually, by the third time, I would have decided that this book is just bad and been comfortable with that decision. To this day I don’t know why I kept trying. But I did, and that fourth time was magic. I think it was the dreamlike, nonlinear narrative that was throwing me off. But once I got used to it, the book was mesmerizing, astounding, sometimes literally breathtaking, with some of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen put to paper.
I could go on (and I have, I guess). I love books. I am–perhaps ‘lucky’ is not quite the right word–but it was intuitive that my chosen profession necessitates that I read books. Theater and books have a lot in common, and I have a pet theory that the vast majority of theatergoers are also book readers. Both art forms necessitate that the audience do a lot of work on their own, and that they be willing to steep into that work for a sustained period of time. Both are essentially spells woven by the artist-creators that can only work if the audience believes in them.
In my private life I own a few hundred books, which by the standards of some book lovers is not a lot. I own another couple of thousand comics: Again, compared to many collectors I know, that’s not that many. In this world of screens, books are almost an anachronism.
And sometimes, my little office in which I am surrounded by books feels like a fortress against the deafening white noise of the digital age. Maybe, for that reason, I can never look at books as a curse or a burden. Maybe that’s why I have carried them around with me from city to city, from home to home. In my life, there are few acts that are “pure.” Reading is one. And unlike so many other things in this world, you can always read (or listen to; I’m not proud) a book for free.
And I suggest that you do. Read a book. That’s not an insult, but a blessing.