The Summer I Learned to Read

I've been told  I could read pizza boxes and Bazooka comics well before kindergarten and there is mimeo-graphic evidence somewhere that I started my first newspaper in second grade.

One way or another, I have made a living  -- at times an absurdly good one --  as a writer. Journalism training honed my hit-and-run skills -- get-the-facts-tell-the-story-move-on-to-the-next.  Regardless of the resulting expose, indictment or award, the bottom line was always clear --  the next day your glorious work product would be used to train puppies, wrap fish and line the bottom of bird cages. Marketing taught me to string words for transactional persuasion.

The library was my childhood amusement park approached with the same hit-and-run abandon as my writing. I wanted to know how others lived beyond my neighborhood so craved and consumed biographies. Historical, contemporary and trashy celebrity tomes were devoured with equal zeal. I have hundreds of these titles on my Kindle today. 

On the first day of my college honors english class (my placement the accident of good day with the SAT), Dr. Simpson handed out a two-page, single-spaced list of the classic books it was expected you had read to be there. Everyone else nodded their heads as they scanned the list. I made only one check mark next to "One Day in the Life of Ivan Densovich" hoping the others would assume that it was the one I still had to read and not the only one I read.

I burned freshman late nights through Hemingway, Austen, Shakespeare, Plath, Salinger, Vonnegut and unremembered others in a catch-up-with-the-others frenzy. I recall little more than page counts and somnambulant mornings 

Back in the real world, biographies and mysteries were still my relaxation drug of choice with excellent narrative non-fiction a luxuriant treat.  Writers like Jon Krakauer and Eric Larson, who could write and report without showing the seams, left me slack-jawed and more than slightly envious of their craft. Every now and then someone would suggest a great book I "just had to" read. I would enjoy it and tell myself I needed to read more of the same, but my to-be-read pile was monstrous and the go-to titles remained the comfort food of biography and mystery. 

Last year Jess Walter sucked me in with his crisp non-fiction accounts of Ruby Ridge and other events to "Beautiful Ruins" -- a gorgeous piece of fiction I shared evangelically. I really, really needed to read more good fiction, I told myself. 

But when I first considered the idea of dedicating this summer to training to manage Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle -- the oldest continuous book discussion group in the United States --  the initial hook was the opportunity to read and meet both Krakauer and Larson. Their most recent titles were two of the 12 books on the CLSC list for this year I would have to read. There were a couple more strong non-fiction titles (Gilbert King's "Devil in the Grove" and Hector Tobar's "Deep Down Dark") and I could get through the rest. 

I swallowed hard at the thought of the volume on poetry and gagged a little when I learned another title was dystopian, but this would mean a summer of being surrounded by books and people who love books in a beautiful place. I could suck it up. I plowed through all but one of the titles before starting the job. 

Three-term U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky spoke the first week of the season and it forced me to re-read his slim volume in the context of his talk. It was a different book and an unexpectedly wonderful experience.

In our little CLSC book shop, I talked about the titles I loved -- and listened about the others. Either all these smart people were idiots or I had to get over my "Hunger Games" abhorrence and read the damn dystopian book. Once I started "Station Eleven," I couldn't stop. I caught myself staring frequently at the young author's framed photo in our shop wondering how one so young could possibly present a world so fully imagined. I've bought and shared five copies so far. 

I took my time and re-read Pulitzer Prize winner "All the Light We Cannot See" finally seeing the craft and power in the time and character shifts that were only speed bumps the first time through. Thousands stood in line to see Anthony Doerr speak this week -- and I understand why. For the literature loving minions of Chautauqua, Elvis was in the house. I didn't mind missing the lecture in order to have things ready for the book signing afterwards. It was glorious chaos that hummed with confirmation of the continuing power of great writing. 

As the season winds down I am humbled and hungry. I'll reread these books again and slowly savor the new titles for 2016 as they are released. I'll spend next summer immersed in these and more. I hope the experience will make me a better writer, but am regardless delighted at the joy of finally learning to read.