The Book That Made Me a Reader

The Book That Made Me A Reader

Ben Marcus on Jane Marcus 


A person, not a book, made me a reader. Her name is Jane Marcus. She was born on January 23, 1938, in St. Albans, Vermont. We lived in the same area when I was growing up, and she brought me books. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. That Was Then, This is Now—also by Hinton. A book called The Pigman, and then, its sequel, The Pigman’s Legacy. Jane Marcus brought me Slaughterhouse Five, and then on my own, at the school library, I found Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. This ended my run with what might be known as science fiction. She gave me the Narnia Books in that white box and I read them out of order, like everyone of my generation. It turned out I was immune to the religious metaphor working through those titles, which now makes me think that I was instead highly receptive to it. Claiming not to know that Aslan was Christ—this is the mission of Christianity perfectly received. The savior is unbranded. But I read no Tolkien. Jane Marcus gave me a book called Ida by Gertrude Stein, which runs in the language of children, but no children you’ve ever met. Before this she gave me I Am the Cheese, and then The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.  Much later I read Fade. Jason Marcus, who lived in the same area as well, was reading D.H. Lawrence and Faulkner. I do not know who gave him these books, but I still have read very little by either writer. When I was ten, Michael Marcus fell ill, and during his treatment, Jane gave me big, unreadable books by Dickens that I nevertheless read. I had my first, and nearly last, experience of skimming, with David Copperfield and then Great Expectations—skimming over the descriptions of character features, over indulgences of setting, skimming with a good deal of anxiety that I would be found out. Oliver Twist I didn’t skim. Jason Marcus and I, at this time, sang "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?" in our small apartment. He operated the flute and I sang with my voice. More recently Jane Marcus brought me a book called The Shutter of Snow by Emily Homes Coleman. She brought me Barbara Comyns. She brought me Scented Gardens for the Blind, by Janet Frame.  She brought me The Hearing Trumpet, one of my favorite books, by Leonora Carrington. Jane Marcus still brings me books, although we no longer live in the same area. She made me a reader.




Photo by Chris Doyle


Ben Marcus is the author of Leaving the Sea, The Flame Alphabet, The Age of Wire and String, and Notable American Women. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House. He teaches at Columbia University in New York.