My Biography as a Reader


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    I probably started to read at a young age, but I could not tell you exactly when. It must have been when I was very young because I remember being very excited about getting my library card. In New York City, that meant I was probably five years old and could read by then.

            Like most of my generation, the first books I remember were Dr. Seuss books (they were new back then) and the ‘I Can Read All By Myself’ series. With my library card and a bicycle, it meant that I could make independent trips to the library (before that was considered bad parenting). The only other books I remember are Emil and the Detectives which my mother bought me because she had read when a child and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, wonderful tales of Chelm, the village of fools. I remember reading many of the children’s history and the ‘All About’ series from Random House but cannot recall any specific title. There were probably books from the Scholastic Book Service, and I remember I had a subscription to Reader’s Digest when I was in the sixth grade. It was also when I was introduced to Kipling. His Jungle Stories were in a Boy Scout manual that I had, although I was not a scout. I remember reading and rereading it at night under the covers. Later, I bought a bound set of his stories and poems at a library book sale for one dollar. It has stayed with me through all of my moves, as had a volume of Robert Service bought about the same time.

            My parents probably read to me, but I don’t remember it. For me, the first storytellers were radio drama, which was still available in 1960, and Jean Shepard, who had a nightly show on WOR radio. I did not understand a lot of what he talked about, but I fell in love with his ability to tell a great story. He also introduced me to George Ade and Ambrose Bierce, who I read later when I was in junior high school.

            Because I started reading so early, I quickly got better at it so that when I was tested in 5th grade, it turned out I had the reading ability of a high school senior. Unfortunately, the educational bureaucracy set limits, so I read Jules Verne for pleasure and stuck reading the assigned readers in school. I would be so bored that I would start talking to other students or playing at my desk. Finally, the system figured out I was advanced, and I skipped a grade. Although it seemed a good idea, it caused me problems until college because I was always one year behind my contemporaries for dating, driving, and just about every other mark of growing up.

            I do remember that junior high school was the first time I had required reading. The only ones that stuck in my mind were Johnny Tremaine and David Copperfield, neither of which I liked. They had probably been chosen because they had teenagers as their main characters, but living in suburban New Jersey in the late 1960s, I could not relate. I was also reading a lot more advanced writing as mentioned and had started to read Ray Bradbury, who was classified as science fiction. Still, I think he is an excellent example of American magical realism. During this time, I also remember reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, which spoke to me about growing up orthodox Jewish in America. I think this may have been the first time that I read Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 although I probably did not understand them as much as I would later. (All three ended up on the syllabus of my Politics and Literature course.)

            During high school, I started my love of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were my go-to writers. I also had a subscription to Analog and a Science Fiction Book Club membership. I still have the copy of Foundation Trilogy that I got for signing on. Later as a graduate student doing formal modeling, I had an illustration of Hari Seldon on my desk. It was also the first of many times that I read Starship Trooper. Until my son lost it about ten years ago, I had my original copy with multiple sets of notes and underlining. I was into drama at the time, so there were a lot of plays being read. Vonnegut was popular back then (the early 1970s), and I read almost all of his books, but I just saw them as science fiction. I’ve never gone back to reread, but I probably should.

The early 1970s was a strange time, so I sprinkled my reading with sociology, history, and politics. Two books from this time stuck in my mind. The first book I remember was Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. I remember being fascinated by the interrogation scene and how the interrogator did not drink or eat during the long sessions to deny the prisoner the moral upper hand. The other book was Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which started my study of rhetoric and propaganda.

High school had its reading requirements, most of which I have forgotten except for those associated with our theater teacher. First was Spoon River Anthology, which showed me a new way to present a story. My high school copy has become so ragged that I had to buy a new version so I could continue to reread. The second was Chaucer in the original Middle English. I fell in love with how it sounded and still read it out loud to myself. The last was selected Shakespearean plays. It was less the plays, then it was the first time I was taught how to deconstruct something to find additional meanings. I remember writing the term paper on the use of ‘word’ in Richard III.

            College didn’t give me much extra time to read, and most of it was for escape. Mack Bolan and those styles of adventure stories were all I remember reading for fun at the time. The plus side was that I tested out of basic English as a freshman and took advanced English, which consisted of American literature from the colonial period to modern times. I remember that Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus was the ‘modern’ novel and that I didn’t think much of it.

            Surprisingly, being in the service did not slow my reading. I can remember reading Hawthorne and Poe (volumes from college) on tank ranges and field problems. In one assignment, I would go to the library on Friday night, take out a book or two and spend the better part of the weekend reading them. This was a period of strong Anti-American sentiments with Baader-Meinhof and others targeting soldiers, so travel was often not recommended. However, I did spend on Christmas leave in Switzerland and Austria and managed to collect all of Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, buying them at rail station bookstands. I still have them and refuse to let anyone borrow them. I also read a lot of Ngaio Marsh and Robert Ludlum because they were popular at the time, and I could get them at the AAFES bookstore. For a while, a few of the lieutenants in my battalion were big on John Norman’s Gor series, and we used to trade those among us. Somewhere during this period, I also read a lot of Hunter Thompson. The most likely reason was that paperbacks showed up in the AAFES bookstore, and I liked the covers.

            I want to say I remember what I read over the next 20 years, but I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remember picking up Dune before a TDY and reading it on planes. And somewhere, I ended up reading a lot of Kafka (including Amerika). I shipped a box of books to Honduras for my deployment, but they were mostly cheap second-hand paperbacks that I ended up leaving there.

            Graduate school and two sons slowed down my reading, although I remember reading Harry Potter and the Animorph series to both. Once I got my degree, I could back to reading for pleasure and discovered writers such as Ha Jin and Hosseini, both of whom are on my list of authors whose books I will buy in advance. For a few years, I taught Politics and Literature, which let me combine my love of fiction with teaching about politics. At a book a week for the entire semester, we went through several books.

            I have recently gone to reading purely for pleasure and will read anything that catches my attention. This has led me into urban fantasy, the unclassifiable Chronicle’s of St. Mary’s, and literary fiction such as Amor Towles and Michael Chabon. I tend to obsessively read them until I exhausted their output, after which I follow them in Goodreads to find out their latest. So, I’ve read almost all of Carrie Vaughn, she crosses genre, and Hailey Edwards.

            The saddest thing I can remember anyone ever telling me was when my mentor, Steve Chan, said he could not remember the last fiction he had read. I found that extraordinarily sad.