June 1, 2007KR BlogReading

Early Reading

How formative those early reading experiences are, or can be. Like many of my contemporaries, I had an appreciation of Dr. Suess, though perhaps my favorite children’s book from my own childhood remains P. D. Eastman’s Go, Dog Go, with its densely populated world of dogs and its minimalist style that lends itself perfectly to the recurring Beckettian encounter between two dogs in a sparse landscape:

‘Do you like this hat?’

‘No.’

‘Goodbye again.’

‘Goodbye.’

Probably my favorite (not that there is anything inevitable about singular favorites) children’s book that I encountered in later years, reading it to my nephew Crhis when I was fourteen and he was two or three, is Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of this Book (illustrated by Michael Smollin). This book also remains one of my favorite examples of metafiction, for Grover realizes that he is in a book, and he interacts with the reader throughout; he just does not realize until the end that he is himself the monster at the end.

I had long had a taste for monsters. When I was growing up, one of the first things that I did on Sunday mornings was check the television section of the Sunday paper for the horror movies scheduled for the coming week. There was a stretch of several years when the highlight of my month was when the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland arrived at the grocery store. There seemed some store of deep and sexy mystery in those magazines. It’s no great surprise, then, that among my first “adult” reading, when I was in fifth grade, were stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. I could not have said entirely why at the time, and probably cannot do so now, but I was beginning to learn by reading Poe that horror is much more than scares and screams; there’s something about us, something dangerous and exciting too, in these dark tales. Then in sixth grade, I finally plowed my way through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The prose seems relatively plain by now–perhaps not as plain, clean, and pristine as P. D. Eastman’s prose, but pretty accessible nevertheless. Back then Mary Shelley’s prose was a thicket. I remember lying on my bed with the book and proceeding from sentence to sentence, page to page, with a basic leap of faith that this language made sense and that I was getting some of this sense, even if not all, and even if at any given moment I could not say what a given sentence just said. But I discovered that if I continued on through five or ten or twenty pages, I could say something of what went on in this book. This experience may have led to my taste for difficulty, a taste that I have to this day–I love to read a book that eludes my immediate ability to make sense as long as it leads me along with some promise and flash. To this day I read difficult books with the same leap of faith I learned with Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I should mention that I did have to learn this leap of faith, for when I finally read the book, it was my third try. I’d made earlier forays and given up before I finally decided that I just had to read on and get what I could as it came.

It was also in reading Frankenstein that I learned something about encountering the unexpected and strange. Of course, I had watched Karloff’s Frankenstein–it was one of those movies I read about in FMF, and that I watched late one weekend night–but the creature of Mary Shelley’s book, who reads Paradise Lost and becomes quite articulate and does not have a bucket-shaped head or bolts jutting out of his neck, is someone else again. I had a similar though much more startling encounter with the unexpected when I was sixteen and reading the Gospels. I was a great fan of the show Kung Fu, and for some reason I expected Jesus in the Gospels to be like David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine, soft-spoken as he utters simple and wise sayings and walks softly, disappearing into the desert (I didn’t think he’d fight the way Caine did every week). But the Jesus of the Gospels is someone else again, far more complex than I could have imagined. And I do believe his sayings and parables are wise, but they too are something else again, many of them, strange, disquieting, and sometimes even surreal in a way. It makes great sense to me that John Dominic Crossan (Cliffs of Fall: Paradox and Polyvalence in the Parables of Jesus, The Seabury Press, 1980) writes about the parables of Jesus alongside the work of Borges and Derrida. One of the great benefits of reading is to encounter something marvelously decentering and disruptive, sometimes even something sublime.