Another Page to Turn
I read because…there’s always another page to turn.
An enduring memory of my childhood is that of my late father, stretched out on the front-room sofa with a paperback in his hand. Dad was a habitual reader, partial to science fiction and thrillers. Our house on Madison Street in Taunton, Massachusetts had a tower attic, a small room reached via a narrow staircase, and there was stored my father’s ever-growing paperback collection. Many of them were ancient, with crackling spines, yellowed pages and 25¢ or 35¢ cover prices. Among those books, inspired by my father’s example, I learned to read. I don’t mean the mechanics of reading — that I got from the nuns of Immaculate Conception Grammar School. I mean the spirit of reading. And like my father the books I read, I keep.
Now for someone with a house full of them there’s no more vexing question than “What’s your favorite book?” (“Who’s your favorite author?” is an easy one: I’m my favorite author.) For the truth is that a lifelong, habitual reader can’t have a single, favorite book. You admire different books for different reasons: the Sherlock Holmes canon for its imperishable charm, Last and First Men for its imaginative brilliance, The Haunting of Hill House for its dark, mysterious heart. I’ve often remarked that the single most influential book I’ve ever read is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, which I encountered at the age of fifteen or sixteen. It was from Mr. Orwell that I received my first dim intimation that literature embodied a purpose higher than simply to entertain me.
Another book that looms large in my mind is Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, his pioneering account of the Soviet peoples’ travails during the Stalin era. What Orwell imagined in his dystopian final novel Conquest traced out in reality. Ingsoc, Newspeak, doublethink, the mutability of the past, the sub-basement torture chambers of the Ministry of Love — in the pages of The Great Terror I discovered that these things were not merely the nightmares of a great writer dying of tuberculosis.
Then there are the books that have made me laugh out loud, among them Mister Roberts, Thomas Heggen’s marvelous comic novel of the US Navy in World War Two, Elevyn Waugh’s Scoop, anything at all by P.G. Wodehouse. Others amused me in rather a grim manner: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
Speaking of Ballard and Dick, both of whom had one foot in the genre, I must confess to have inherited my father’s taste for science fiction, particularly the novels and stories of its Golden and Silver Ages. The Star Wars films showed me nothing that I hadn’t already encountered in the pages of classic old space-opera novels like Edmund Hamilton’s The Star Kings. From the estimable Isaac Asimov I learned the Three Laws of Robotics. Long before Margaret Atwood came along with her vision of an American theocracy (The Handmaid’s Tale), Robert A. Heinlein had covered that ground for me — and much more entertainingly — in his short novel, “If This Goes On — ” More recent favorites include Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin.
Odds, ends, bit and pieces come to mind as I muse over my life among books: John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer” (a neat little suburban daymare), George Orwell’s essay on Rudyard Kipling, the latter’s Barrack-Room Ballads, Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Wallace Steven’s haunting poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Alice Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution.” (Sheldon wrote under the names James Tiptree, Jr. and Racoona Sheldon, producing some of the most impressive SF of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.)
Nowadays of course I have a Kindle and many of the books I read are not bound but bytes. Still, I continue to buy and read real books. There across the room, for instance, is my copy of J.G. Ballard’s complete short fiction: a fine, fat volume bound in yellow and dark blue. Seeing it reminds me that Ballard produced one of the most unsettling horror stories I’ve ever read: “Billenium.” And no, it contains no ghosts, vampires, zombies, slashers or predatory aliens. Some wouldn’t call it a horror story at all. But it scared the hell out of me…slowly, insidiously, the more I thought about it.
No doubt my books are the bane of my wife’s existence. Sometimes I catch her running her eye along the shelves, perhaps calculating how much money has been spent over the years to fill them. But she knows that I can no more live without my books than I can live without her and she’s admirably tolerant of my need to possess them. The Kindle is a great little item of technology but there are times when I want to sit with a glass of wine to the side and a good old-fashioned book in my hand: the annotated Dracula, say, or the Library of America edition of Philip Roth’s novels. It’s a winter’s night and a blizzard is blowing. The hour grows late and I know I should go to bed but there’s one last glass of wine in the bottle and always another page to turn.