To be lost in a bookshop sounds like an ideal adventure.
In those times of duress, when pressed with the questions that exist somewhere between small talk and a real conversation, a particular few questions are oft posed to me: What are your favorite books? Who are your favorite authors? What do you like to read?
In all but the most recent of times, this has been a perplexing line of questioning to answer. That may come as a surprise, seeing as I am a writer, an enthusiast for storytelling in all of its forms. I’ll attempt to explain this, and in so doing, hopefully to allow you to relate if you feel yourself in a similar vein, or to allow you to understand that not being able to rattle off an insane in length list of books one read as a child, does not mean one cannot be well read.
My childhood experiences with all media, with stories, was limited by economy. My family wasn’t at the bottom of the barrel necessarily. Fortunately we were never homeless. In the first few formative years of my life, however, there was a scarcity of material. When I had a toy, I had to make it last, had to make it fill the void that others could have filled by default. Stories were the same way.
That’s why, with some kind of feeling crossed between shame and a shrug of my shoulders (as if to to say, it was what it was), I didn’t have much of a list of books I read as a kid. I struggle to think of many at all when I’m asked about what stories I grew up with. I can definitively say The Time Machine was my favorite book in my pre-adult life, as it remains my favorite novel to this day. What else was there? I remember Clifford the Big Red Dog, The Berenstain Bears, I read and adored Dr. Seuss. There were probably other children’s stories I read, but the ones I didn’t get to have at home didn’t stick to my memory. Perhaps fragments of them swirled around in my adolescent subconsciousness.
I did read newspapers, as often as I could, even though I lacked the mind to understand many of the events in them. I couldn’t much wrap my head around crime and politics back then. I read magazines, though I seldom understood the content within them. What probably mattered most was being exposed to language, to the way pictures could be used to tell stories in tandem with words. I read comics, but had access to precious few, being limited primarily to collections of DC’s Star Trek run, and smatterings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle collections, some based on the hit cartoon, and thankfully, some of the darker, original works by Eastman & Laird. In a bizarre crossover, I was able to get a taste of Cerebus, when said character meets the Turtles in a time-traveling, dimension-hopping adventure. After this I was able to, with my meager earnings made from cutting grass in my early teenage years, able to amass a decent collection of Sonic the Hedgehog comics.
What some scoff at, and to this I cheerfully present a shrug and a bird, is how many of my early experiences with stories came from video games. I was playing Centipede, Space Invaders, and Super Mario Bros. when I was big enough to hold a controller. These games had precious little in the way of a story in and of themselves, but they fueled my imagination, they made me wonder what stories were lurking in and around what wasn’t presented on screen. These games helped me early on with concepts of mathematics, resource management, problem solving; they forged in me a sharp coordination between my mind and body, preparing me early on for working with computers. As time passed, there was still little opportunity to expand my game library, but was still fortunate enough to be able to play games like Sonic the Hedgehog, which provoked in my young brain early thoughts about environmentalism and man’s relationship with nature and machines.
In a closely guarded, tightly conservative household, television and movies were the most stringently restricted storytelling modes for me. Most of what I had access to on TV came back around to Ninja Turtles, the movies based on them; Star Trek; approved for children programming, such as Peewee Herman (which was then banned from the household when the lead actor was caught in a theater having too much fun with himself; the child me didn’t understand); and for a time, shows like Captain Planet (which I was banned from viewing when my father decided it was environmentalist propaganda). I took whatever stories I could get in whatever medium was available.
Expanding my limits
In the 3rd grade (a grade in which I thought myself edgy and mature all of a sudden) I read my first Goosebumps books. I am sorry that I can’t tell you exactly which ones I read. If I saw the cover or the synopsis it would come back; as of this writing all I recall is the story about the all-consuming blob, and one about a werewolf. What mattered is that these books, though tame compared to what you might call proper horror, broadened my horizons, pushed the edges of what made me feel comfortable.
Around this same time, I was exposed to literary classics in a roundabout way, through programs like Wishbone: Gulliver’s Travels, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, among others. My public school programs were oddities when it came to literature, being focused more on basic comprehension and physical writing skills rather than expose us to many written works. By the time I reached a grade where I might have ended up reading works that many of my peers take for granted, I was taken out of pubic school, to finish the remainder of my grades in private education. Though this spared me from the nightmarish hell of dealing with bullies and the torture of forced social interaction, I missed out on books that are oft on “school reading lists.” It would only be later in life that I’d have the pleasure of reading Fahrenheit 451, that I would be exposed to Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby. Previously, telling people of my age that I had not read books they accepted as standard in modern education, that furrowed some eyebrows, as I suddenly became Less Than Them.
The literature thrown at me in the upper middle and high school years was often religious in nature, either something that was an analysis of christianity, or a way to view the world through a religious lens. I rebelled against this, instead escaping into what stories I could. In this crucial time in my development, I played video games with stories and characters that changed my life: Metal Gear Solid (a hell of a thing to be exposed to at the age of 14, and I am eternally grateful for it), Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, The Legend of Dragoon, Chrono Trigger, Civilization, Command & Conquer, and, courtesy of the infantile, dial-up internet, Dungeons & Dragons, played via message board. The latter exposed me to writing creatively for the first time in any way that others could see. It also taught me how to read a greater variety of voices.
And we’re back to now
Now, having become a self-published author, seeing the need learn all the more so that I can expand by ability to tell stories, I find myself playing catch up, working backwards in the literary world. I never read Neverwhere before writing After Terra: Year 200, and now, in retrospect, I’d not be shocked to be accused of stealing some of Gaiman’s writing beats. If you’ve already read both of those books before I made that statement, you’d probably think I was full of shit. Maybe he and I have similar minds, or were somehow influenced by the same people. I think about how I didn’t get to read Heinlein or Bradbury until more recent years, but those men influenced so many others, and those men and women in turn worked on the shows, movies, video games, and music that eventually found its way to me.
It is a goal of mine to read all that can be read, to reclaim the hunger for stories and literature that was always in me, but was never allowed to blossom for one reason or another. As I continue my writing journey, it is now married in bliss with a reclaimed reading life, as I gorge on works that have for too long been on some abstract “to read” wishlist.
May this brief glimpse into my reading life be of use to you in your reading and writing journey, may you never underestimate the value of a good story even if it is not in a book.
Image pulled from Wikipedia:
By Sb2s3 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44358389