Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Reader's Reflections: Early Years

Francis Bacon wrote, Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested. The process by which one acquires the appetite for books to be chewed and digested, reveals something about the pathway of a person’s intellectual growth. During my early childhood, I grew up in a home without books, with the exception of a decade old tan-covered dog-eared Webster’s dictionary, the kind with finger notches along the fore edge of the book.  My parents were both very bright, but during the Great Depression, had no opportunity to attend school beyond 8th grade, which I suppose accounted for their lack of exposure to reading led them away from books.  Nonetheless, each evening after supper, my father read the Minneapolis Star Journal newspaper from cover to cover, aside from the stock market pages, but he didn’t read books until after he retired. Though often exhausted from a long day’s hard work as a greenhouse foreman, he often expressed his passionate views about politics to me as he read one or another piece in the Star.

My mother seldom read books either.  Gary, my older brother, gave me three Lone Ranger novellas for Christmas when I was in 4th or 5th grade, which piqued my enthusiasm for reading. To that point I had been a plodding reader.  In my sixth grade year, my parents decided our family needed an encyclopedia, so they shelled out more than they could afford for an Encyclopedia Americana. I spent many hours poring over color images of planets in the Encyclopedia, reading about Mars’s moons, Deimos and Phobos, and studying the dark grey craters on the moon.  I was a sporadic reader throughout high school, gravitating toward science and science fiction, such as Percival Lowell’s The Solar System, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.

I think of that as my “Rocket Boys” period, after the book about six boys in a West Virginia coal-mining town who decided to build a rocket and send it up into the firmament. The original memoir, October Sky, by Homer Hickam Jr. struck a chord with me.  About the same age, I built a jury-rigged pipe rocket powered by home-made gun powder which blasted a hundred feet or so into the air over our back yard in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. I slipped a smaller bore pipe inside a slightly larger diameter pipe, screwed a cap onto the smaller pipe. I packed gun powder inside the open end of the smaller pipe, which I had propped up the makeshift device among piles of sand and cinderblock, and lit the fuse. Next thing I knew my mother was standing on our home’s back steps, shouting, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?  Are you trying to blow us all up?”  I was lucky I wasn’t seriously injured in the process, because the fuse didn’t light properly at first.  I switched to a less risky alternative.  I built 6-inch reflecting telescope and spent countless hours peering at the surface of the moon and the rings of Jupiter on cold winter nights while stomping my feet to kept my toes from freezing. My reading kindled my naively optimistic attempts to understand the world around me.

Unsure of the direction my studies would take me, as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, I was smitten by Henry James’s Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. I found Henry James’s portrayal of Isabel’s inner monologues absolutely captivating.  James’s mastery of complex, often very convoluted Victorian language was a marvel to me.   Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road’s Beat spontaneity overcharged my restrained Midwestern emotions. Kerouac produced the manuscript of On the Road on a continuous scroll by taping pages of semi-translucent paper together to feed the old manual typewriter and write without interruption. The text was single-spaced, without paragraphs, and edited in pencil by Kerouac.  Kerouac’s thumbing his nose at established publishing practices was appealing to a young budding non-conformist making his way in what seemed to be a rule-bound world.

A year or two later I discovered Kafka’s The Trial, Metamorphasis and Penal Colony.  Kafka’s anti-bureaucratic absurdism appealed to my youthful rebellious mentality, which as with most young people was preoccupied with social and political injustice. I had grown up in a vegetable farming area north of Minneapolis in which no one attended college.  Higher education was perceived as being for effete snobs who were trying to better than everyone else.  I suppose it was no surprise that there were times that I especially identified with Kafka’s character, Gregor Samsa’s who had been converted into a disgusting giant insect, scurrying about his apartment with an apple stuck in his carapace, thrown by the land lady who had attempted to shoo him away.

For a interlude in graduate school I was taken with Lawrence Durrell’s Cefalü later published as the The Dark Labyrinth, which tells the story of a group of travelers who become lost in an underground labyrinth on Crete, a labyrinth which may or may not still be inhabited by the minotaur. The story unfolds with a blend of allegory and symbolism, which was highly appealing to a budding psychology doctoral student. The Alexandrea Quartet, certainly captured my imagination, a four volume account of an overlapping contemporaneous series of events, unfolding from various narrators’ perspectives. Around the same time, I came upon Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and Narcisuss and Goldmund dedicated to a search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.  I found his struggle to understand the relation between physical reality, perception and emotional expression were in sync with some of my own intellectual machinations at that time. 

That reading era concluded with Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. The narrator, a young Greek intellectual, with whom I identified, resolved to set aside his books for a few months and sets off for Crete in order to re-open an abandoned mine and immerse himself in the world of peasants and working-class people. The narrator is fascinated by Zorba's lascivious opinions and expressive manner and decides to employ him as a foreman. Zorba resembled some of the men who surrounded me as I was growing up, though a bit more out of the ordinary.  Zorba's soliloquies set the tone for a large part of the book. The narrator, who has socialist ideals, attempts to get to know the workers, but Zorba warns him to keep his distance: "Man is a brute.... If you're cruel to him, he respects and fears you. If you're kind to him, he plucks your eyes out." The narrator absorbs a new zest for life from his experiences with Zorba and the other people around him, but reversal and tragedy mark his stay on Crete, and, alienated by their harshness and amorality, he eventually returns to the mainland once his and Zorba's ventures are completely financially spent. [Based in part on].  That was the year I learned to savor gyros with tzatziki sauce, zucchini fritters, fresh sauted green beans with onions, tomato and dill and stuffed grape leaves with kalamata olives, pretty exotic fare for a young man raised on meatloaf, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes with gravy.

In my elementary and high school years, books served as friends who honored my intellectual proclivities, because my peers seldom did so.  For years I had a Gary Larson cartoon posted above my desk that shows cows in a pasture standing on their hind legs chatting, until a car appears along the road next to the pasture. At that point the cows all stand on all fours munching grass.  As soon as the car passes, they resume standing on their hind legs and resume their conversation.  I certainly knew the drill as a child, but things changed dramatically once I was in college. 

No comments:

Post a Comment