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Archives for April, 2011

The Origins of My Love Affair With Books

Yesterday, a client of mine named Joe Beernink blogged on the origins of his love affair with books. Oh, the nostalgia! And oh, my envy for the attic full of books his mother had collected! His blog post touched off a whole cascade reminiscence for me, and so while this is a bit off-topic for my blog, it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it, so I’m going to pick up the thread and add my own memories.

Two Works of Genius

If I had to pick one initial starting point, it would probably be this.

It’s one of the earliest books I remember reading all on my own. It was preceded by younger-age fare such as Puss-n-Boots and The Three Billy-Goats Gruff. I have vivid memories of being four years old and reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff out loud, but now that I have small children of my own, I suspect I was reciting rather than reading. Kids have amazing memories.

The Phantom Tollbooth was the first chapter book I actually owned a copy of. Prior to that, I got books from the school library. I have basically no memory of anything I checked out, except to know that I read an awful lot of Hardy Boys mysteries. Couldn’t tell you a damn thing about any of them today—they didn’t have sticking power—but I know I checked out as many of them as the librarian would let me.

Tollbooth, though. That, I remember. Vividly. I don’t know how many times I read and re-read my copy. But I do remember the way the paperback spine began to curl, and how the paper on the front cover wrinkled in that particular way that paperback book covers do, and the utterly singular feel of those wrinkles under my fingers.

I remember thinking that I should be more careful with how I was holding the book, lest it fall apart. My mom never had any money. Had it fallen apart, I knew I wouldn’t be getting another copy. To this day I hold paperback books very gingerly, like the precious things they are, a habit that has only grown stronger with time. These days, when I’m done with a paperback, it barely looks used at all.

But I said two works of genius. The other formative story for me wasn’t actually a book at all. It was a record:

For those not in the know, The Point! was a trippy, psychedelic, and obviously drug-influenced animated kids’ ABC Movie of the Week from 1971. I didn’t see the movie until I was a grown man and the Disney channel started showing it. In fact, I don’t think I even knew there was a movie until then. I had always thought it was just a record, because that’s all I had.

I was six or maybe seven when Mom brought the record from some second-hand store. It came with a weird booklet inserted into the package with stills from the movie, arranged in quasi comic-book form to tell the story. It was weird and strange, and I loved it. I listened to that record countless times, following along in the booklet, enthralled with the story of poor pointless Oblio—the only boy in the land born without a point on the top of his head—and his dog Arrow.

(Side Note: I also loved that the back of the record jacket had all the song lyrics printed on it. Even though I can’t say that I really understood the poetry of the lyrics, I grooved on ‘em to the extent that the first non-nursery-rhyme song I ever learned to sing—all the way through, all by myself—was Harry Nilsson’s brilliant Think About Your Troubles, off of that album.)

If asked to pick two works of storytelling for a seven year old kid to fixate on and consume repeatedly, selected to engineer a life-long love of books and stories, I don’t know that I could do a better job than chance and my mom’s utterly opaque sensibilities produced for me. Yet, when I look back on those two selections with the benefit of hindsight, a whole lot of life experience, and having spent the last few years analyzing stories for my clients, I think I know why The Phantom Tollbooth and The Point! were so effective.

Fantastic Worlds

Both stories involve kids having adventures in really, really wild lands. Norton Juster’s “Kingdom of Wisdom” was a fantastic place, in the most literal sense of the world. A place where some kids start with their heads at their adult height, and grow downward until their feet reach the ground. A place where days are conducted like symphonies. A place where banal physics need not apply, and yet, a place that operates according to its own internal logic: the logic of wordplay.

The Land of Point, similarly, was a place of impossible geographies, improbable morphologies, and even less probable inhabitants. Like the Rock Man—literally made of stones and accompanied by a deep bass-guitar sonic backdrop—"That’s it. You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear. You dig?” Or the Pointed Man, decorated on all sides and in all directions, with arrows, fingers, and other implements of pointing, illustrating that “a point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” It, too, was a world in which physics was more of a set of helpful suggestions rather than rules, but which rigorously obeyed its own logic: the conflation of metaphorical and physical pointedness. Of having a point with having points.

Those books taught me something incredibly valuable about storytelling. You can get away with damn near anything in a story, as long as there is, ahem, a point to it and as long as you’re consistent about it. Through their own utterly delightful and unique interpretations of story physics, Tollbooth managed to wrap a lesson about the value of imagination and the non-supremacy of any area of study over any other (in other words, don’t take yourself too seriously just because you got a degree in something) in a cracking good adventure about a boy and his dog freeing a couple of princesses. The Point! managed to convey a lesson about self-worth (even when it’s invisible to the eye), about not judging by appearances, in an adventure about a boy going off to seek his place in the world, only to find that it’s right where he started from.

Missing Pieces

But remember how I said I didn’t even know that The Point! was a movie until years and years later? Well, I didn’t. The record I listened to ad nauseum didn’t have space on two sides of vinyl for the whole story. And the little comic book inside didn’t either. In the reduction from screen to audio, some brutal editing took place. Obviously, there wasn’t room for the whole thing. (Side note: I remember being similarly disappointed, at a similar age, to discover that the soundtrack album for Star Wars: A New Hope contained only the music—not the dialogue and sound effects. Aw, man! What a gyp!)

While seven-year-old me didn’t understand the harsh realities of production costs and why this must necessarily be the case, I couldn’t escape the sense that I was missing something. That the record and the booklet weren’t telling me the whole story. But in a way, that may have been good. In a way, those brutal edits turned the experience of listening to the record into an analogue of the experience of reading a book: I had to imagine a lot for myself.

Similarly, brilliant though Jules Feiffer’s illustrations for Tollbooth are (they are marvels of evocatively spare, loose line art), again not every scene could be illustrated. Not every character could be pictured, not every moment shown. Much—as it should be—was left to the imagination.

This, too, teaches a lesson. It’s one I learned on some intuitive level back then, but never recognized consciously until I began devoting myself to the study of how and why fiction works. I’ve heard the lesson phrased several different ways: “The story you write isn’t the story the reader reads.” Or, “Every reader brings their own baggage to a story.” Or, one of my favorites, “A well-written novel is co-authored by the reader’s imagination.” That last one comes via fellow book-doctor Stephen Parolini.

The best stories are ones that engage the reader’s imagination. The best stories are the ones that leave room for the reader’s mind to spin. The best stories are the ones that leave stuff out.

My Love Affair Continues

I’ve never fallen out of love with books. I’ve read, I don’t know, probably thousands of books since I was seven. Some gems, some stinkers. Some read and re-read, others read and forgotten. All too many, alas, forgotten. For me, I think the hallmark of a truly great book is whether it sticks with you. Whether you can remember having read it at all, and when you do, do you have an immediate emotional reaction. A sense of “Oh, yeah! I loved that book!”

For as much Hardy Boys as I read, none of it stuck. But I have never forgotten The Phantom Tollbooth, and I have never forgotten The Point!. They stuck, and stuck hard. As a writer, I can only hope that someday, something I write sticks that well with a reader.

What about you?

I loved Joe Beernink’s blog on this subject so much I’m writing this response. I think it ought to become a meme among us writer-types. So to anyone reading this, I’ll make you this deal: post your own reaction on your blog, post a comment here with a link to your blog, and I’ll do my best to drive readers your way through my own social media network. Please share. Even if you don’t have a blog, give us your formative book experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear other people’s stories of how their literary love affairs began.

April 18, 2011 23:42 UTC

Tags: Norton Juster, Harry Nilsson, reading, nostalgia

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