A few months after I graduated from university (for the last time) and was working at my first full-time professional job, I was having lunch alone in a food court downtown. This was many years ago and I was still young enough to pass as a student. I was reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It was the Penguin softcover edition, a compact but solid handful of about 900 pages (including text and notes). Between the summer after high school and my release from university into society nine years later I had read almost everything by Dickens, some of it on my own, much of it for English literature courses. For some reason though Dickens’ harrowing satire of the English legal system never made it on the school curriculum and I hadn’t got around to it in my recreational reading until now.
I was innocently reading when a woman approached me. I recall that she seemed “older” (she was probably no more than forty). She asked me if I was reading the book for a course I was taking. I think she phrased the question, “Excuse me, are you reading that because you have to for a class, or because you want to?”
When I told her that I was reading Bleak House because I wanted to, she seemed pleased and gratified in a way that left me feeling that I’d restored her faith in humanity.
“Are you enjoying it?” she asked then.
“Immensely,” I could have answered, though it’s more likely I simply said, “Yes.”
She might have said thank you as she left, or maybe apologized for disturbing me. I can’t remember.
The details are fuzzy, but the gist of this exchange has stayed with me for thirty years. The woman (probably a teacher, maybe just a devotee of the Victorian novel) evidently thought it was remarkable that in 1986 a person could be reading a novel by Charles Dickens willingly, for entertainment. And it cheered her to be told this was the case (I imagine her going home and saying to her husband, “Guess what happened today!”).
Recalling this incident makes me wonder what made me a reader. When did I turn to books? What were my earliest reading experiences?
When I was a child my parents took me to the public library. Every week I carried home an armload of picture books (I vaguely remember my favourites being Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog). When I’d grown up a bit I read the animal tales of Thornton W. Burgess and later, like everyone else, I read Hardy Boys and Tom Swift adventure books.
The first books I bought with my own money were anthologies of Peanuts cartoon strips by Charles M. Schulz. I read and re-read these avidly because they were funny, and then read them again years later because of Schulz’s virtuoso comic genius.
However, I recall (even more vaguely) that around age ten I came into contact with a copy of Robinson Crusoe. I think what happened was that in grade 5 we had a Christmas gift exchange. Through some process that made it anonymous and random, we were given the name of a classmate and bought that person a gift. The wrapped gifts were placed under a Christmas tree and at some point before being dismissed for the holidays we were presented with the gift that had our name on it. My gift was a copy of Defoe’s novel in a small paperback edition with a message on the cover that was either “retold for children” or “easy reader” or some such. I read the book, but I don’t think it made much of an impression because I didn’t go looking for literary works for many years. (I do remember feeling cheated when I discovered that Robinson Crusoe is actually a very long novel and that what had been foisted on me was a dumbed-down version for people whose reading skills weren't up to the job of tackling the real thing).
Through the rest of my school years I read what was assigned but not much of anything else. Maybe if I was desperate for a distraction and it was raining out and there was nothing on tv, I would pick up a book. Mostly though, I spent my time doing the things that kids did in the 1960s and 1970s, which was pretty much anything but reading. Through the first two years of high school the only books I read for class were very short: Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and (oddly enough) One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.
I was good in science and in grade 12 I signed up for advanced courses that would improve my chances of being admitted into university and maybe even winning a scholarship. However, English was mandatory and I ended up in a class with students who, it was silently acknowledged, could probably get to where they wanted to go without reading any serious works of literature. Our teacher, Mr. Macmillan, would loosen us up by tossing a tennis ball around the room. Teaching consisted of him talking about this and that, mostly sports (I was one of the few non-athletes in the class). However, he did two things that influenced my intellectual development, which sounds more pretentious than it is. He assigned us a textbook, an anthology of short stories. It was called Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine and originally published in the 1950s. We were expected to read the book because we would be tested on its contents (he had to test us on something). The other thing he did was encourage us to read. He did this using an honour system. For every book we read and noted beside our name on a list he was keeping, we would be awarded a point toward our final grade.
I suppose the anthology was the first such book I had ever held in my hands. Not surprisingly, I didn’t know many of the authors. Some I had heard of but never read (O. Henry, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner). Others were new to me (Conrad Aiken, John Cheever, Eudora Welty). As far as reading books was concerned, I was motivated and I had an advantage: I had recently started a part-time job at the public library, shelving, keeping the collection in order and doing a bit of public service work. The range and variety of books available to me was staggering and choosing what to read was not easy. So I used the anthology as a guide, reading those stories and looking up authors whose stories I had enjoyed.
Before this, as noted in a previous post, my reading had been sporadic, undirected and random. But once I got a taste of what writers can do when they are sensitive to language and possess a genius for storytelling and a singular vision, I was hooked. I remember being especially fascinated by two stories in the anthology: John Cheever’s “Torch Song” and “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams, examples of concise, suspenseful storytelling that uncover something strange and perilous within ordinary, everyday experience.
I read a number of books that year and was duly awarded points toward my final mark. But the reading didn’t end after high school graduation, and I suppose that’s what Mr. Macmillan hoped would happen. That summer, while still working part time at the library and resting up before embarking on a university career that would last nine years, I started reading in earnest, novels and stories by Dickens, Cheever, Welty, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of my real education, which continues to this day.