Seeing my son's lack of interest in reading, I looked back at why I love it and wrote this.
When I was young, I saw pen and paper as an escape. I was never bored, despite my lack of any significant amount of toys or a television. The only physical belongings I had that appealed to me were storybooks, several of which were suited to one much younger than me. I had drawn my own stories in blank pages at the beginnings and ends of the books, including any margins that had sufficient space. Aliens invaded the copyright pages leading into Disney’s The Jungle Book, and cowboys assaulted the Berenstain Bears’ title page with all the fury a six-year-old’s Number 2 could muster. Even after my careful editing, I read and re-read those books. I loved them. I hadn’t even seen most of the movies that these books were based on, which were based on tales or books much older and longer themselves.
Once my grandmother saw my scribbling that covered the white spaces of my books, she insisted I draw on paper only and leave my poor books alone. Thus began my rocky relationship with art and the written word. I drew mostly those first years, with no sign of artistic talent to be found, with the exception of my third grade classmates’ jealousy over my ability to sketch out a recognizable ninja turtle. I cannot remember specifically when I began to write, although I can remember the specific moment I fell in love with real books. Or more specifically, the ones without pictures.
There was a small used book shop just across the main street in the small town I used to live in. My mother was convinced I was too small to cross this street by myself, but since she let me roam about the neighborhood and rarely asked questions upon my return, I figured as long as I avoided actually getting hit by a car then there was no reason I shouldn’t go where I pleased. Fifth graders are basically grownups anyway, right? The aforementioned shop was my first target as a self-proclaimed free man. I parked my bike outside and crept through the doors quietly, hoping no one would pay me much attention. Of course, no one did. There was no wise old man there to guide me to the perfect section of books for me while handing out sage advice. Only books. Scores of them. I will never forget the atmosphere of that used bookstore. That may be attributed to the fact that many I have visited since exhibit a similar one, but still I remember it.
The store was dim, but lit well for casual reading. That is to say, not so bright that your eyes hurt, but not so dark that you have to struggle to make out the words. The smell of books was intoxicating, and I fear I cannot explain that any further. I walked about, dazed. I looked at books for what seemed like an eternity. With hardly any idea where to look or what to look for, I was in deep. Until then my book collection had consisted of hand-me-down children’s books and a rotating array of fiction on loan from the school library.
Somehow I stumbled on to a section of young reader books. After a few minutes of searching, I had no idea what to choose. Eventually I found a book with an award stamped on the cover. I assumed if it had won some sort of award, then it had to be decent. Later that year we would read Maniac Magee as a class and my teacher would explain to me what the Newbery Award meant, but I learned that my assumption was fairly accurate only days later. The book in question was Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I thumbed through it and shrugged, thinking it looked worthy of a little time investment.
I had five dollars in my pocket, which was a veritable king’s ransom for me. I brought my intended purchase to the counter and slid it towards the old woman there, who was preoccupied reading a book.
She looked a bit perturbed at having to tear her eyes away from her reading to deal with a skinny little child buying a single used paperback.
“Fifty cents, dear,” she said, glancing at the book.
Fifty cents? I was speechless. I had saved and saved to bring enough money to buy a used book, having seen the ridiculous prices on books at our school’s book fairs and the little paper catalogues they passed out. I thought that surely, even though they were used, books would bring at least half of their cover prices.
Of course, it was wonderful news. I could buy ten books with my money, not just one! My young brain didn’t quite understand the concept of sales tax, either. But nonetheless, ten!
“If you don’t have the money, I don’t mind if you sit at one of the tables and start to read it.” The old woman was looking at me expectantly.
I shook myself from my reverie. “I’ve got it, but I just thought that it would be… more.”
“The price for old paperbacks on that wall is fifty cents apiece. Hardbacks are labeled, one dollar and up. You want to go back and look again?”
I brought home at least three books that day. Aside from A Wrinkle in Time, I cannot say what they were. I learned that it was hard to cross the main street on a bike while clutching three books, but I avoided any collision with oncoming vehicles, thereby protecting my secret. My parents didn’t notice my new found prizes, and if they did, I’m sure they assumed they were library books.
I had planned on making several trips to that used bookstore to acquire more treasure, but it never really happened. I may have gone once or twice more, but as summer ripened, I landed myself a solid grounding for staying out too late one night. The neighbors who lived beside us in our apartment complex had bought fireworks, and as a young boy, I felt compelled to stay outside and watch until the last one burned down. My parent felt compelled to ground me for an entire month.
Grounding isn’t so bad for a person that likes to read. Unfortunately, I was a quick reader and I exhausted my supply of unread books in a little less than a week. I have always despised reading a book over again, but that month I did so. Towards the end of the month, I was concocting my own stories and sequels to add to those books, and scribbling them down inside what was left of my spiral notebooks from school.
To make matters worse, we abruptly moved just before my grounding was over, ensuring that I lacked the freedom to say goodbye to most of my friends from school. I believe I only got to talk to one of them, Paul, simply because of my incessant pleading and his close proximity in the neighborhood. We moved to another state, and I was alone even after my grounding expired. No friends, no used bookstore, and no idea where the public library was. So I wrote. I would take every dollar I could scrounge up and head to the nearby Dollar Store, where I would buy a spiral notebook, pencils, and a pack of that cheap but delicious gum with animal stripes on it. If I had enough left over, that is.
Eventually I discovered the location of the Public Library, and even found a few friends. But even with other things to occupy my mind, writing had quickly become a passion. I could make my own stories. I did not have to depend on someone else to bring me fantastic fables, although undoubtedly my favorite authors did it better. I could bring dragons and robots and whatever else I fancied to life in my shoddy red notebook just the same. It was incredibly liberating for a boy who spent most of his evenings cooped up in his own empty room after dark, when it was improper to be outside any longer.
I would give anything to see one of those notebooks now, and to have the motivation to fill another. How does one recapture the motivation of a bored, abandoned child? I suppose as a child I created out of necessity. I used it to fill a gap in my life that was never attended to by my parents. Reading and writing became wonderful outlets, so much so that I bear no ill will towards my stepfather and mother for lack of attention. Now, as an adult, there is no glaring hole in my life, and I struggle to find the time and motivation to fill pages with the words I used to love so much.
Until now. My nine year old son abhors the thought of reading books for fun. He cannot understand the purpose of reading, when there are so many movies available to watch on Netflix. He cannot understand why anyone would want to immerse themselves in a world of fantasy through the avenue of words, when the Xbox can do it for you at breakneck speed. How does one convince a boy who has everything that there is merit in turning off the television and reading a good book? I can tell him it will make him smarter. He doesn’t care a bit about that. Grades are just something else that I hassle him about.
Once, in response to my endless needling, he suggested that he might read a story if I were the person who wrote it.
I suppose it is time to write again.