I had the illusion I was brought up a in house of books. I had that illusion in the same way I had the illusion my mother went to Harvard. In reality, she went to Harvard in the same way she knew the Kennedys. I discovered in my early twenties my mother had attended Harvard Secretarial School, rather near the University of that name but not quite that university, and she lived some blocks from the Kennedys; neighbourhoods in Boston can change rather abruptly.
My father had attended college as well. He would tell us stories of his five-year quest for his associate degree at Sam Houston Institute of Technology, later to have changed its name to Sam Houston State Teacher’s College. We disbelieved the tales of bull riding and jerking cars into reverse at eighty miles per hour to drop the transmissions. How believable are such tales told by a man who was a teen on a farm in upstate New York who was a boy born on the streets of Brooklyn?
Some time in my late teens we traveled to Texas for an Amway convention. We stopped in Hunstville, Texas to visit the folk he lived with while in college. They lived in a small home off a main street in the small town near the prison. It was a home numbers with a half numeral, full of knick-knacks and smelling of old-stuffing in the chairs and that nothing could be moved except to be dusted and put right back again, same place, measured and maintained.
While there, I was told tales of bull riding and jerking cars into reverse at eighty miles per hour to drop the transmissions. I was told how, after four years he was told by his parents he had one year to complete his two year degree. A year later he was called to come home and back to New York he went, his back having be rodeo-broken twice, the college bank having been closed by the parents. And back up to the big old stone house he went, no degree.
Such people do not normally fill a house with books.
I had the illusion I was brought up in a house of books. It’s just most people had fewer books than we did and that was a bit of a shame because we didn’t have that many. We had a few books of poetry, rather old each. A book of children’s verse contained my favorite poem, “The Duel (The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat)” by Eugene Field. An old copy, quilt covered, of Tales of the Wayside Inn, a huge red book of games, and a few more books of varied sorts. My grandmother, living with us from my earliest memory, had some books but I was not to look at them. One was Valley of the Dolls.
I remember my father attempting to throw out the history books en masse exclaiming they were old, the information had changed and they were of no use. He failed until the year after I moved. Then, out they went.
It appears, the books in the house grew out of my desire to read, not anything genetic. I learned to read at the age of four; not exactly the age of prodigy. It hurt. My first book was Duck on Truck. I later read Curious George and various Dr. Seuss. My mother taught me to read. According to the docs I was supposed to go blind. I had just learned to walk a year earlier. Now I was reading and crying about it but, cry as I did, I read and read more. I read no matter how much it strained or how my head ached. Little has changed.
Reading seems to be the thing to do. I had little eyesight for sports and less desire for it than sight. The TV was on constantly, tuned to Hee Haw or the Dukes of Hazard or The Jeffersons. Music was on when the TV was not and we listened to 30’s and 40’s pop, big band, classical or country. I had nearly no experience with Rock and Roll until high school. “My Sharona” was hardly a song to draw me into a life of loud music and the common corporate pop-culture.
And so, against this I pushed with my books. I am a solid proponent of Drive Theory.
Later on, The Eagles and Pink Floyd would grab me, The Kinks would shake me but never hard enough to dislodge John Denver. The first 45 I bought was The Archies singing “Sugar Sugar.” The first 33 was an EP of “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” by B.J. Thomas. My first album was by Helen Ready. My second? Read on.
I collected “Big Little Books” and poetry books. Soon I had books in my room on the night table and the floor and on the dresser. This is about the age of seven, or so I am told and, thus, my recollection of living in a house of books.
It seems we sometimes had more books than food. I have verified this as a fact wanting to make sure my memory has not played tricks on me. I would ask for a book and, if it meant not having a particular food item, we ended up with the book. Why not? I still grew older and overweight. I carried this tradition on when, in my early twenties and a struggling young married fellow, I picked up a leather-bound copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when we had no money set aside for milk and bread. I discover, later, we were allergic to both milk and bread so, in the long run, we were better off. Besides, twenty years hence, still we are here, still is the book as well and where would the bread be?
Before I was ten I had a collection of folktales and myths. I had devoured all the poetry I could find and had a collection of Campbell, Jung, Erikson and, strange for my age, Richard Bach. My second album was Richard Harris reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
At some time in my late single-digits I happened into a golden-age science fiction novel. I was a goner. It was probably Asimov. It might have been Clark or an early Heinlein but, for the sake of the argument I am having with myself over this, it was Asimov. I have three shelves of Asimov, one shelf of Clark, one of Bradbury, and on it goes. As I said, I was a goner.
I remember putting in an order for a copy of Foundation’s Edge weeks before it was due to come out. I thought that would be the only way to get one. The year was 1982. I was nearly the only person in B.Dalton Booksellers in the now defunct Skylake Mall. There was no line. Just me, at seventeen, putting in my bit of cash and my mother putting in the rest. School ended the illusion other kids read. Pre-ordering Foundations Edge ended the illusion adults read.
I remember the moment I decided I was going to write. I recognize it as a single instance which, while reading, I realized I wanted nothing more than to write and, at the same time, knew I did not. I was reading “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Bradbury from The Martian Chronicles and thinking I could never, no one could ever, write better than that. I had thought so of Poe. I still know this to be true, but here was Bradbury, a live human, writing better than I could hope to, writing beautifully, in words with melody and meaning and sound and sight and I could never write as well as he. Poe was dead one hundred and forty years but Bradbury, he was a live person. Why try?
And I read Teasdale, Levertov, Benet, Snyder, Frost, why try? Cummings (I never know what to do with the initial letter in his name) stopped me cold. I could never write as well, never write as well as they. And I was correct. I knew that. I still do. I can never write like they did. But, I also realized, I didn’t like everything, each and every bit, they wrote. Some things I did like better than others. There. There was my opening. Skill or no skill, some things I liked better than others. Some poems, some stories struck, resonated, made sense to me where others fell, thudded and laid still no matter the skill employed.
I can never write like they can, but I can write like I do. And some of my work will fall, thud, lay still on the soil, decay. But some, some may resonate, strike, make sense, germinate, grow in someone’s soul. Some will live for the reader. It might not be the writing I think it should be. Who am I to judge an unfinished work since, without the reader, what work is complete? If some of my work sings with melody and meaning, sound and sight, just some, then I have done something. I have done what Bradbury did. One day someone may listen to my work and think never, never could they write that well.
Once more I had that experience. Once more I knew I could never write that well. While riding one late-past-midnight, headed home from a full-moon revelry, my wife and I down a twenty-mile road from Jonesville to Gainesville in Florida, we turned on a non-existent, according to the FCC, radio station playing from Gainesville. Music, commentary and, right now, poetry. I listened to the poem being read and found myself at full attention. The sound and the rhythm, music and meaning. I thought, what is that? Who wrote that? My wife must have seen my face. She nudged me. “Don’t you recognize that?” I didn’t.
“That’s yours. You don’t recognize your own poetry?”
And it was. It was mine and I recognized it then as my own. It was “Recognizing Kali in a Young Girl,” I was the writer and I was the reader or, in this case, the listener. I completed my own circle. Had done so unknowingly. One day someone listened to my work and thought never, never could they write that well. One day, it was me.
I can’t write as well as some but I can write as well as me. If I work hard, practice, listen, learn, read and write, some day, they will be the same.