Monday, 09 January 2012

A Book at the Right Moment

When I graduated from college, the one thing I was looking forward to perhaps more than any other was the freedom to read whatever I wanted. No more assignments, no summer reading lists, just my own meandering tastes.

And meandering they were. I was very much into environmental issues in those days and would read virtually anything with a dust jacket showing our planet dripping oil or wrapped in plastics and toxic metals. It used to drive my parents crazy. They were both college English professors and were reading, teaching and producing anthologies filled with the names of some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers: Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, John Cheever, Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike, Eudora Welty and the like. There I was, buried in Paul Ehrlich’s controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb.

But I was beyond all those stodgy Great American writers. Having grown up in an almost absurdly literary household, I read everything I could get my hands on. Which led to some rather unusual reading habits. I plowed through Tolstoy’s War and Peace three times before I graduated from high school and dipped into Joyce, James, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many more.

I pretty much burned out my interest in serious literary fiction and I’ve never looked back. Literary nonfiction is another matter. Who can put down one of John McPhee’s books?

Today, I am most fascinated by the world of science, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine, archaeology and anthropology. One of my earliest memories of any sort of career interest was in the field of oceanography. This was in the heady days of Jacques Cousteau. I wanted to scuba dive like Cousteau—or at least like Seahunt’s Lloyd Bridges. Raised by English professors, a history major in college, I have always felt deep down that I was a frustrated scientist. And that interest, though never followed through academically, has guided much of my fiction writing over the last decade. My son shares some of my interests. He majored in Geography and English. I have suggested to him, only a little facetiously, that he might get a job as science writer for the New York Times.

The books that had the greatest impact on me as a child had to do with adventure. The year I lived in Mexico with my parents and sister when I was eight, I discovered at the end of our street, a small, English language library. In it was a many-volumed leather-bound set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books. I can still remember the joy of bringing one of those books home. I was only allowed to take out one at a time and I would read it slowly, savoring every word. A few years later when I was thirteen, I was again living abroad in Istanbul where my father had a Fulbright Scholarship. In the library of the international school that I attended called Roberts College, perched on the edge of the Bosporus, I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Like the Tarzan books, I was enthralled for weeks.

Finding a book or series of books at precisely the right age can be an important and even transforming experience. There’s a great deal of serendipity involved. As an adult, I tried to reread Tolkien but without success. One of my favorite books in college was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tried it again in my thirties and found it completely unmoving and was unable to finish it. It can ruin one’s memory of a great book forever if it is revisited at the wrong time. Maybe that’s why I haven’t attempted to reread War and Peace as an adult. Some things should remain sacred.

All of this is by way of admitting that a great deal of what I read nowadays consists of popular fiction and especially thrillers. I love them unabashedly, the throbbing pace, unexpected twists and turns, exotic locales. And now I write them as well, folding in plots rich with science and history. But I’ve become choosy and will drop a book that doesn’t maintain my interest. Most don’t. I particularly do not like the latest batch of top sellers. They seem too often written like cartoons, with utterly unbelievable events and cardboard characters.

I also write young adult adventure novels, basically thrillers for young people. I like to imagine I’m creating something that may one day be found in a library somewhere by a thirteen-year-old and will enthrall and inspire him the way Tolkien did me.

I know. I’m no Tolkien. But there’s something profoundly satisfying to think of the inspiration I felt so long ago being somehow filtered through my own world view and passed down to the generations that follow.

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