I was the youngest of three, so when I reached reading age there was an un-surprising paucity of children’s books. My older siblings had apparently tossed them all as being “too kiddy”, and so I grew up reading mythology and history. Sometimes when my contemporaries wax eloquent over the joys of The Wind in the Willows or Through The Looking Glass or Winnie the Pooh I feel a slight tang of remorse, but it is quickly forgotten. I cut my reading teeth on Norse mythology, Ragnarok, Odin, and Thor. I read of the heroic journeys of Jason and Odysseus, and the Trojan War, and the wonderful Native American tales of Rabbit and Raven and Fox. Toss in Robin Hood and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Roland, then finish it off with our unique American tales; Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed.
My father was a sporadic reader, but he handed down to me some excellent choices. Frank Herbert’s Dune, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, and Hemingway. My next-door neighbor, Chuck, a wonderfully generous man who was obsessed with Science Fiction, and was married without children, saw in me something that made him treat me like his son. I will be forever grateful for his gifts to me, including the works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. With my father I often visited the library, which instilled in me a never-ending love of the quietude of the stacks, and gave me Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, along with Stevenson's “Jekyll and Hyde.” Endless books about World War II and the Civil War followed.
Still, my most important encounter with books, had yet to happen. I was about twelve or so, and I had discovered (Marvel) comics. Despite all of the reading that I had done before, including about half of what I have previously mentioned, I lived and breathed Marvel Comics. I read eight or nine titles a month, and dreamed of nothing more than to be an artist drawing my favorite heroes. Unfortunately my artistic skill began and ended at drawing faces. I couldn’t draw a body in motion to save a life, and still cannot. However, one day, early in December, I found myself in a grungy department store called Gee-Bees, waiting for my mother to finish Christmas shopping. There was a large table packed belly-to-butt with paperback books, all priced at a quarter per book. Bored, I drifted over to the table, and began reading the titles.
At the time one of my favorite comics was Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. Strangely enough, I looked down at this myriad of books all smashed together, and saw Conan The Barbarian by Robert. E. Howard. I plucked it from the pile. It looked like the paper-backs my dad had handed to me, except that the cover was torn off.
In an annoying parenthetical pause, I have to tell you that then I didn’t know what a “stripped” paperback was. Now, with the hindsight of wisdom, and more than thirty years of experience, I like to think that I would have tossed that book down in a display of righteous anger, and pledged to never again read it’s like. Stripped books are one of the bane’s of a writer’s existence. Those illegal books led me into the world of books, however, so they played their role.
Since each book was less than half the price of a comic, I gathered all of the ones about Conan that they had, and bought them. If you are not familiar with Howard’s work I am not going to go into any detail, but they were a perfect fit for me then. They were tales of action, written with an almost maniacal energy, and using only the most basic and primary colors. I devoured them.
Every time I went to Gee-Bees I bought as many paperbacks as I could afford, discovering Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Corum series, and the wonder Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser books by Fritz Leiber, which I still heartily recommend. After cleaning out the stripped-book table, I found the store’s book aisle, and started grazing there. Even though the price was higher, I had the money, because I had stopped buying comics, and and started to take on odd-jobs to make my fix; I was addicted to books.
Pause with me for a moment.
The reason that this moment was so important, and so polarizing is astoundingly simple now, but was momentous then; before, all of the books I had read were either borrowed, or given to me. These books that I had bought were chosen by me, and I could keep them as long as I wanted, and could read and re-read them to my heart’s delight.
The only problem was that I had cleaned out Gee-Bees. Like any predator, I had to expand my range so that I could continue to feed. After a little research, I chose Monroeville Mall (forever immortalized as the filming location for George Romero’s classic film Dawn of the Dead) because they had a big bookstore. The name escapes me now, and all of my searches came up empty. It doesn’t matter; I am sure they went bankrupt. The important thing is that it was big, and it was a bookstore.
If I haven’t yet made it clear, I love book stores. From the biggest of the chains to the smallest, dingiest little nooks. Each one holds a little magic inside of them. I am convinced that until I shuffle off this Mortal Coil, and stroll happily into that Big Bookstore in the Sky, that I will never again recapture that moment of rapture that I felt walking in that retail space in a mall in south-western Pennsylvania.
I am a seasoned traveller now. I can tell the good clerks from the warm-bodies. I know what aisles hold the books for which I am searching. I am wizened, and a bit jaded, but still able to revel when I find a diamond in the rough. Then, however, all of those aisles and all of those shelves, were unknown territory. Like Lewis and Clark, I had the length and breadth of an unknown continent before me. Of the revelations I discovered, none was as important as finding out that being lost was a kind of freedom, a freedom that only exists for the innocent. I took several bad turns in those shelves, which I will ignore, claiming ignorance. Although I will admit to asking a clerk if they had any copies of The Necronomicon, because I thought that it was real.
The important thing was that I found Stephen King, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Philip Roth, and John Crowley and Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce, and Dickens, and Kafka, and on and on. I felt like Frodo, in The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo says, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
One warm summer day I was sitting on a swing on my front porch. I was twelve, and I was curled up and reading a comic book. A few years later, I was still comfortably swinging in the same seat, but now I was reading Lolita, or The Alexandria Quartet, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The porch was the same. The swing was the same. I, however, would never be the same again.