How I became a reader of books

My parents encouraged me in ways I didn’t realize until much later.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Central Park, New York City

When I was a boy, my parents read the daily newspaper, and my mom read Woman’s Day, but I don’t recall either of them ever reading a book. And yet, they must have recognized the importance of books, because for my 11th Christmas they gave me the first book I ever owned – “The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” I distinctly remember opening it, reading the first lines of “The Cask of Amontillado,” and remarking to myself, “So this is what reading is!” My delight was unbounded. Little did I know at the time that I was at the beginning of a lifelong journey.

So, if I confronted my first real book at the advanced age of 11, what was I reading before then? In a word, readers: relatively plotless, plodding, repetitive if well-intentioned attempts to teach children to recognize letters and their sounds and to build their vocabularies. Being a dutiful first son, I went through the motions, and I learned what words were. But I still had no idea what writing was.

Until Poe. Look here at the opening line of “The Cask of Amontillado”: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

I didn’t yet know who Fortunato was, but I was acquainted with “injuries” and “revenge.” They were dark words, at the leading edge of Poe’s story, nestled in a sentence more complex and stylish than anything I had ever read before. Certainly more complex and stylish than “Run, Spot. Run, run, run. Oh, oh, oh. Funny, funny Spot.” And more challenging than the very short tales about poor children and loyal friends that were in the “Dick and Jane” readers. (Spot was their dog.)

I don’t mean to be harsh on the readers. They must have accomplished their objective, because I and my classmates certainly did learn the fundamental skill of reading from them. But that’s exactly the problem – they kindled a skill, but not affection, for the written word. That was left to Poe, whose ornate language, I admit, sometimes bamboozled me. But it was real language, charged language, language worth grappling with, and the payoff was enormous.

Poe, in short, was a springboard. My parents gave me that first book, but then I went off on my own. I liked science, which led me to discover Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I wound up favoring the latter. Look at the first sentence of “The Invisible Man”: “The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”

One solitary, introductory sentence, and I was taken prisoner by the story.

Other writers followed in quick succession, like a riffling of falling dominoes: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke. But I didn’t limit myself to science fiction. Other titles that deeply impressed me early on, and which I have carried on my life’s journey, include: “The Yearling,” “Shane,” “Ivanhoe,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “The Good Earth” (recommended by a high school English teacher who told me, “You’ll dig ‘The Good Earth’!”).

It went on from there. I became that proverbial kid who, long after his parents tell him lights out, huddles under the covers with flashlight and book, his greatest fear one of being discovered and having his flashlight taken away. On reflection, I realize that my parents must have known I was defying them. But in their wisdom they feigned ignorance of my saintly sin of delight.

And so I owe my start as a reader to my parents, and to Edgar Allan Poe, and yes, in their rudimentary way, to the “Dick and Jane” books, whose counsel still whispers after all these years: Read, Robert. Read, read, read. 

And I have never stopped.

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