Today my email went “ping” to reveal a message from within the Faculty, calling for submissions that outlined a request, for the upcoming Ontario Library Association SuperConference, for us to volunteer “the book that turned you on to reading”.
As always, my first reaction to this was “but there wasn’t just one”. There are many kinds of reading. Many of us turn on to one form of book and would never look for one from another genre.
In any event, the request has done its job: it got me thinking.
First Books: Usually, they’re read to you
The love of reading generally starts, not with reading, but with being read to. For some of us that’s also where it ends: happily hearing the words, but with zero desire to actually pick the book up and read it for ourselves. Most children, however, at some point start to puzzle out a familiar and much-loved book for themselves. We will — if we are able — hang on to that early book, mangled and scribbled in.
For me, that book was one that’s almost impossible to find these days, Little Black Sambo. (Today it’s considered politically incorrect, although how a story that obviously takes place in the tropical zone that involves churning a tiger — by getting him to chase you round-and-round — into butter is a challenge isn’t immediately obvious to me. Still, American segregation led us to the over-correction that the terms used to describe the people in this story are now verboten in public, and so the book is gone.
I still have my copy from 1958, not that I read it much any longer (nor did I read it to my children: they had their own early favourites which I also found enjoyable). Nor, despite much racking of memories, can I pull up any others from my own picture book era. I know my siblings used the same books I had had in my time, but others were also added, and I just can’t recall any longer which were mine.
Several years later — when I was about nine — this book led me to devour Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book. Mowgli and Shere Khan was to me just an advanced and more detailed tale of living in a world unlike my own, one where we weren’t secure from being prey. Most recently, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt once again tapped into this vein, with the return of one of the characters from the bardo as a tiger who is, in turn, hunted. I often pull this book up even today, zeroing in on those few chapters: the bonds of memory are strong.
Reading picture books is one thing, but the next transition is to a book without pictures. I certainly recall my first and second books of this type: Freddy the Detective, and Charlotte’s Web. Two other books, however, that came home somewhere in the first few stacks taken from the public library, were Freedom at York, a tale of a boy fighting against the American invaders of the Town of York during the War of 1812, and Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, which began a life-long love of science and speculative fiction.
Freedom at York isn’t a story I’d care much about today: frankly, it wasn’t that good. What I have noted is that I’ve had a life-long suspicion of the United States and its leadership that probably was rooted in having read this tale of my own city being attacked and captured. Even two years living south of the border, and having made many friends in America, hasn’t changed that undercurrent. I’m less likely (I hope) to say something stupid arising out of it now that I have been in the past — goodness knows anti-Americanism is well rooted in Ontario culture!, the part of Canada I’ve spent most of my life in — but it’s a constant battle, especially since (as with any government) there’s never a shortage of decisions to take issue with.
Of course, eruptions do occur. One of my dearest of friends in the UK first came across me in 1995, when we both worked at the same firm (I had gone to Connecticut to work for the company). Part of my job was to criticize the research notes others had written. His first effort was heavily marked up. When he came to work the next morning, he wanted to know “what f–king American thought he could mark up my note like that!”. Colleagues told him that “yes, it’s harsh, but he’ll make you a far better writer and researcher” and “don’t ever call him an American, even though he works at headquarters; he’s Canadian and he’ll bite your head off if you do”. The failed attempt to save Fort York was still weaving its magic … also the hope at the end when the invaders are sent packing.
As for Heinlein, I devoured all the rest of his juvenile science fiction. Then the stories of Arthur C. Clarke, then of Isaac Asmiov, then of Ray Bradbury, and so it went. When I ran out of ones in the children’s section, I simply went to the adult stacks and kept going. These were my transition into adult level reading, about when I was ten.
It took a while to figure out that for both Asimov and Heinlein many of their works connected into a grand imagined “history of the future”. (For Asimov, there were two: the worlds of the Robots, and the worlds of the Foundation; for Heinlein, many of his stories written in the 1940s were not tightly-fitted, but some were, and as we came forward to his latest publications all of them were part of one grand vision, with the exception of Starship Troopers, the first “adult” Heinlein I devoured.
Around the same time, my sketches (believe me, I am no artist!) started to become imagined cities and regions — community and urban design remain amateur passions — and the drawing of futuristic craft of many types. Down the road, in the 1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the original “white box” Dungeon and Dragons, these skills led me not only into role-playing, but into Game Mastering, something I have done ever since. (One of my designs was even published, in 1980, by the D&D magazine “The Dragon”.)
When I was thirteen, two signal book events happened. In Grade 6 J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was one of the works of literature we studied. That summer of 1965 was when the Ballantyne paperback set of Lord of the Rings began to appear — one book a year! My copy of The Fellowship of the Rings was worn out two years later by the time The Return of the King finally made it to the stores! Still, “Fellowship” was the first book I purchased, starting another life-long habit of book buying.
In the winter of 1967-68, I went to buy another book, without knowing what I wanted to buy when I went to “The Book Cellar”. What I bought was Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Frankly, this was beyond me at the time, but I kept at it over my high school years, trying to figure out what this man was saying (philosophers — even the die-hard Kantians — generally all agree that Kant was an abysmal writer). From this work was born my interest in philosophy.
The spring of 1968 saw me with one leg in a cast. Amongst the many books brought from the library was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Kant was non-fiction; Rand was philosophy wrapped in the form of a novel. I bathed in that book. Even today, although I don’t call myself an Objectivist, many of the ideas she brought forward have their place in my own natural faith about the world.
Ever since these two books, it is the non-fiction stacks that I tend to haunt. I’ve certainly read no shortage of novels since, although both by virtue of buying many paperbacks just before the gate will close at the airport and by my own likes and dislikes, I tend toward the political, the judicial or the science fiction. (Aside from Tolkien, fantasy is not something I generally favour.) I suppose a Yann Martel, were I the Prime Minister, would be sending me a bi-weekly book to read, too, because the Booker, Giller, etc. prize winners seldom find their way to me.
The Great Passion of Philosophy of History
As an inveterate used bookstore prowler, I came across the Atkinson translation of Spengler’s The Decline of the West and the Somerville abridgement of Toynbee’s A Study of History within days of each other when I was first on campus in 1972. Both were dramatic turning points then, and remain so now (although I have now read and use the full unabridged twelve volume set of Toynbee rather than the abridgement).
The sheer hubris involved in trying to pull the complete story together, not (as with Heinlein and Asimov) from a pre-determined plot-theme, but from the shards and fragments of reality has consumed my mind ever since. It is the source of my skill, such as it is, that saw me employed for years as an research analyst, and that animates this blog today. Along the way I have also delighted in many works of speculative, or alternative, history: works that say “what would have happened if this event had gone another way”, opening worlds where the American Revolution never happens, or where the Stuarts are not dethroned in Great Britain, or where the French Revolution does not degenerate into Jacobin violence requiring a “man on horseback” (Napoléon) to end the destruction, or the like. Then, too, people with daring looks at the world, whether grounded well in fact (e.g. 1421, the story of the Chinese fleet and its explorations), or in well-constructed speculation around archaeological evidence (e.g. the exploration of drowned communities off coastlines around the world, as in Hancock’s Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization), or those who look for parallels, such as in Jared Diamond’s works, always reach out and grab me.
I’m not a scientist, but I do try to keep up with works written for the layman in physics, astronomy, ecology, environment and geology. I’m always reading history and philosophy. I read a fair bit of cultural study work, and some psychology and architecture.
As with most people, I still have blind spots. I seldom think, for instance, to drift down to the shelves filled with poetry, plays, analysis of literature, or (oddly, at least to my mind) biography: I’ll read biography of someone in a space I’m already interested in, but don’t read much simply to explore someone’s life. My loss, I am certain, but my time (as with everyone’s) is limited.
On the other hand, when popular opinion or the correctness brigades insist a book should not be read, you are likely to see me with it. My high school attempted to suspend me for having Ayn Rand “in my possession” (not for being caught reading in class, simply for having it with me). Later in life, while digesting Mein Kampf on midnight shift, I made the error of leaving it at my place in the coffee room while I ran to fix something that had broken down — and came close to being fired for “reading that book”. So, too, with Das Kapital.
My favourite philosophers to read remain Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, George Grant, Eric Voegelin and Tom Langan. These days as much time goes into re-reading as new reading. I must be slowing down.
In the meantime, as this recollection has shown, some of the earliest works have informed my life, for good or ill, throughout — and since my greatest fear is to be blind and cut off from easy reading, I would say the whole experience has been formative, too.
But one book? Pah! It’s never one.