A Late-Blooming Bookworm Moves Past the Hardy Boys

For someone who came from a family with a deep appreciation of books and literature, I read surprisingly little as a boy.

Mother spoke three languages - English, Russian, and French - and used to read aloud to us in Russian from Pushkin's ''Eugene Onegin.'' She wrote many books on international relations. Father died a month before I was born, so I never knew him, but he must have loved books, for I came upon his collection in the bookcases in the living room.

By the age of 18, Nabokov had read all of Shakespeare and the major Russian and French writers. The reach of my efforts did not extend far beyond ''The Hardy Boys Series'' - I still remember one of the books with the remarkable title ''The Sign of the Sinister Signpost'' - and required reading at school.

I was not in rebellion against the literary pursuits of my family. But I was late in learning to read. So much so that I was excused from French, for the sounds of that beautiful language were so baffling that I was failing to learn to read either French or English. Over time I did learn to read, but never became a fast reader.

In elementary school I was required to memorize poems when sent to detention. While preferable to having to do penance by writing hundreds of lines - ''I will not throw erasers'' - this unusual proceeding did not kindly dispose me toward poets or literature. (However, it has enabled me to recite poems over the years.)

I had wonderful teachers in elementary and high school who loved literature. I enjoyed their company and benefited from their instruction, but did not follow their example.

I entered Harvard College in the high-risk ''late-bloomer'' category - students having shown little promise to date, who, through some miracle, might change in the future. Change failed to materialize during my freshman year when I was placed on academic probation.

But one day in my second year at college, I came upon Keats's earliest great sonnet, ''On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer.'' I was the same age as Keats and I longed, like him, to discover the world. His sonnet, as Aileen Ward points out in ''John Keats, The Making of a Poet,'' ''is not about Chapman, or Homer, or even Keats's reading of Chapman's translation. It is about something much larger, more universal, the rapture of discovery itself - of a new star in the vast heavens, of a sea where none was known before.''

My great discovery from reading ''On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer,'' was that literature could deeply affect me and that it could play an important role in my life.

For most undertakings in life, there is no better preparation than reading literature. I say this with the conviction of a convert. In my work as a lawyer, novels and histories have helped me understand the complexity of human relationships.

Through them, I have gained a sense of perspective and proportion. I have come to appreciate the wonderful richness of the English language. And I enjoy reading passages aloud. What better way to acquire a love for the language in both its written and spoken form?

Books make excellent companions. They lead us beyond ourselves. I read and re-read the short stories and plays of Chekhov with their sympathetic portrayal of the human condition, and try to look upon the world, as he did, through understanding and sympathetic eyes.

In the years to come, may literature continue to play a vital role in my life.

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