I am that rare man who thinks he can pinpoint the moments in which he fell in love with books, and the way that stories printed on good paper, sometimes with delicious accompanying artwork, can awake something in a child that he or she did not know was there, but was there, hibernating, patiently impatient, and then bursting forth with what we could call glee, and delight, and excitement, and passion, and hunger; for once you are thrilled by books, you realize with dawning amazement and anticipation that you are lucky and doomed both—lucky that the world is filled with more wonderful books than you can read in even three lifetimes, and doomed because you will certainly miss thousands of wonderful books even if you read thriftily, assiduously, avidly, ravenously.
But away you go anyway, one book leading to a second to a seventh to a hundredth; you emerge laughing and sighing from The Wind in the Willows and you read every other book about animals that you can find; you read one Sherlock Holmes story and you read the rest, and then venture deep into the wilderness of the rest of Conan Doyle, discovering the high hilarity of Brigadier Gerard and the haunted mania of his spiritualist works; you read one Chip Hilton sports book and you read every other book about sports you can find. The life of Lincoln somehow leads to Bobby Orr and Madame Curie; the gemlike brilliance of Chekhov leads to Frank O’Connor and Ray Bradbury; Li Po leads to Lee Child to Harper Lee, and on and on and on.
I do remember reading The Wind in the Willows, and the Chip Hilton novels, and Tom Swift and Tintin and the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, but it is a book I read when I was perhaps 10 years old that rises to memory this morning, as the book that tipped me over into some subtle but telling pleasure that has not only fed 50 years of reading but 40 years of writing, 40 years of trying to put thoughts and feelings and intimations into words and sentences and paragraphs and passages, trying to make sensations into stories, trying to articulate that which cannot be explained or understood, but which can most certainly be felt, and, if the writer works hard enough, perhaps shared.
It was Christopher Morley’s Where the Blue Begins, the quiet blue cloth first edition, 1922, with drawings and color plates by the inimitable Arthur Rackham. I was ill and abed, as I recall; I have the faintest memory that it was late summer, hot and windy outside, and dense and silent inside the house; and I picked up the book, and began to read, and for the first time that I remember I was in the story; I had been sucked into it in all my parts, so that after an hour or so, when my mother came to check on me, I was genuinely startled to see her, and to slowly recognize my crowded cheerful bedroom, for I had been strolling along with Mr. Gissing for quite some time, thick as thieves, chasing after that mysterious faraway most alluring blue.
This has happened many times since then, and many is the book in which I plunged so deeply and thoroughly that when I finished I was discombobulated to find myself in a chair, or bed, or library nook, when just a moment before I had been at sea with Captain Aubrey, or on the tundra with Barry Lopez, or deep in the jungle with Joseph Conrad whispering conspiratorially in my ear; and I have been blessed enough as a writer to several times receive letters from readers startled and displeased when a book of mine ended, and there was nothing after the last sentence but a blank page, as trackless and remote as a Pole. One reader wrote to me recently to actively complain that a book of mine had ended, and she wished to know, by return mail if possible, what had happened next to the people in the book, whom she had come to like very much, with all their flaws. I wrote back carefully, to say I was not privy as yet to what happened next, though perhaps that news would arrive in its own time; and I continue to think that I could not possibly receive a greater compliment than that, though it was offered with a certain vinegar. She had been lured irresistibly into a story, just as I had been so many times, and you, too; do we celebrate that subtle delight as much as we should? Do we salute and honor the way that books so quietly and gracefully become countries and ships and planets, the way they are extraordinary and graceful time machines, the way they hook billions of children on the joy of narrative and imagination? We do not, I think; we take the gift of books and stories a little for granted, because the miracle is so subtle; but pause for a moment yourself, this morning, and think about the books you fell into too, as a child, and when you were interrupted, or when you finished, there was that odd discombobulatory instant when you were not quite sure where you were. A wonderful instant, isn’t it? Never forget.
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