The Book That Made Me a Reader

The Book That Made Me a Reader

Jim Shepard on Two Very Different Writers 

I was the first in my family to go to college, and my father’s not-so-secret plan for getting me there involved A) my getting good grades, and B) his filling the house with books. Those friends that had attended college that he knew at Sikorsky Aircraft, where he worked, had assured him that reading was the key, and like them he believed that if you were going to read something, you might as well learn something, and so the books he brought home were books of non-fiction: histories, and picture books about science and the natural world. (My wife when we first started talking about our childhoods was stunned at the number of children’s books I hadn’t encountered; most of the ones I did know I’d seen and read over at other kids’ houses.)


What went under the heading of literature came into my consciousness through the backdoor, then. My father and brother and I watched a lot of movies, and I began to notice when movies I liked seemed to have been based on novels or plays or stories. My brother collected and read the old Classics Illustrated series, and I’d pick up whichever of those had a cover intriguing to an eight-year-old: Taras Bulba, for example, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  


But there were two turning points that seem decisive to me now looking back. When I was in fourth or fifth grade I received a Christmas gift certificate from an aunt for one of the dullest downtown department stores in Bridgeport—with a forlornly tiny and bland toy department—and so, determined not to piss away what I had on clothing, I wandered up and down the store and finally found myself in the tiny and equally bland book department, where I picked out everything I could from the literature section that had to do with monsters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All of which were then piled on some bedroom shelf until one rainy Saturday the likes of which my children can now no longer experience—I couldn’t find any of my friends and there was nothing on the three channels available on TV—I figured I might as well read one of those books. I started Frankenstein and was so put off by the formality of the language that I put it down again. Which discouraged me, since even then I had already started writing stories, and liked the idea of doing so. But if I didn’t even like Frankenstein, what kind of writer was I? With a dispirited sense of my own idiocy and unworthiness, then, I tried Dracula. And was swept away. By the time I got to Jonathan Harker peering out of his window to see below him, down the sheer stone face of the Count’s castle as it towered over the abyss, his captor slowly crawling out the window and down the wall face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings, I was standing up from the desk and hopping around the room. And then the structural suspense built into the design of alternating diary and journal entries by the various participants...! I thought: are you kidding me? Someone planned all of this? And how on earth had the screenwriters for the Bela Lugosi Dracula thrown all of this out? And then I was knocked flat by the visceral titillation of Harker’s encounter with the vampire’s three brides, once he strayed into that part of the castle he was warned to avoid. Books could do that, as well?   


Dracula led me to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which led me back to Frankenstein, which led me to The War of the Worlds, which led me to Poe, who led me to Lovecraft. But as much as I loved those works, and even as steeped as I was by that point in monster movies, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to write stories only (or even mostly) like that; I also realized that I wanted to write about the quotidian, as well, which I recognized was an odd impulse, since I wasn’t clear on why anyone would care.   


Which brings me to turning point two, and my father’s best friend, who despite the lack of a college education was a reader, and who gave me for my birthday when I was in 6th or 7th grade a paperback boxed set of Salinger, a gift I found initially every bit as disappointing as the gift certificate to the boring department store had been, since none of the books even had an illustration on the cover, and two featured nonsensical titles, as well: Franny and ZooeyRaise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters?


Those, too, went onto a shelf or into the closet. And again at some point when I was beside myself with boredom I cracked open Nine Stories, and was dazzled by “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.”  Because although I didn’t much recognize the world—tennis clubs? getting stuck for the cab fare?—I did recognize the voice, and I did recognize the attitude, and I did register the charm even within the rigor with which the everyday was being dissected: the combinations on display of self-absorption and compassion, of banality and intrigue, and above all of goofy comedy and unexpected pain. That was my first experience of registering that someone else from an entirely different place and class might have shared inner experiences with myself and the lunatics with which I grew up. That was my first inkling that if I aspired to write literature, I didn’t have to have Henry James’s background. And for that reassurance I’ll always be grateful.   






photo by Barry Goldstein


Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels, including most recently The Book of Aron, which won the Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature from the American Library Association and the PEN/New England Award for fiction, and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Five of his short stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, two for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Williams College.



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