The Books that Made Me: Part I

Everyone remembers them. The pages that rise up in your mind. The characters that give advice.  The illustrations that collage themselves of their own accord and wallpaper your dreams.

Ten years old. A small school in Montana. A classroom of twenty students, which was the entire fifth and sixth grades combined. The teacher had two shelves of children’s novels that we could check out for our assigned silent reading periods. I had never heard of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I read it in two days. Later that week I got into a physical altercation with another student over who got to check out The Magician’s Nephew first. I spent the next year quickly opening doors and looking around corners, trying to glimpse another world before it disappeared. For me it was old-fashioned escapism, a way to leave poverty and boredom behind. I wanted to become a mad scientist, like Digory’s uncle but with a better ending. I thought science could find a gateway to the magic that I wished could somehow be real. It would be nine years before I encountered it in the field.

Twelve years old. Our science teacher assigned an oral report in which we had to choose a constellation and research each of its major stars, as well as the mythology behind its name. I chose Pegasus because, well, I was a twelve-year-old girl and it was a flying horse. Having neither internet nor mythology books, I pulled out the Encyclopedia Britannica. At the end of the article on Pegasus, there was the notation, “See also: BELLEROPHON, MEDUSA, POSEIDON.” By the end of the night, I had hauled out at least six encyclopedia volumes, some only tangentially related to the topic at hand. A research fiend had been born. Over the next few years, I read every mythology-related article I could find in that encyclopedia set, and explored many other topics as well. Fifteen years later, while reading Occidental Mythology for the first time, I smiled at the illustration of the Minoan snake goddess. I recognized her from my encyclopedia-foraging days.

Fourteen years old. By this point I had read every kids’ book my family owned multiple times. I dug through my parents’ boxes of college textbooks in desperation. Why one of them had a copy of Goethe’s Faust, I’ll never know. I dragged the old typewriter out of the attic and typed out my favorite quotes. Summoning a demon seemed thrilling and dangerous, but with archaic language and woodcut illustrations, it was far enough removed to be innocuous.  I wouldn’t have dared to read what my classmates were reading: Stephen King, V.C. Andrews, R.L. Stine. I had been very sheltered from media violence, and my parents were incredibly strict about our exposure to secular influences. Looking back, I can’t believe how much magical knowledge slipped under the radar and into my mind during that period. While the goth kids at school were listening to Ministry and cursing people by burning their photos, my parents breathed easily knowing their nerdy kid was upstairs reading the encyclopedia… you know, learning about divination with runes, Aztec sacrifices, and watching Faust conjure Mephistopheles.

I had a set of illustrated and abridged children’s classics that I returned to in my teen years. The Count of Monte Cristo presented me with my ideal picture of a scholar: secreted away in a remote cell, focused completely on learning sciences and languages from a brilliant mentor. And of course I could think of a few people on whom to enact delicious revenge. The Wizard of Oz has haunted me through the decades. The habit of opening doors and curtains that I picked up in my C.S. Lewis days had by this point extended to my observations of religions and social mores.  How many throne rooms have I entered only to find an automated talking head, with a muffled voice saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”?

Fifteen years old. My high school had a library. Or at least, a very tiny copy of one. I believe it had four stacks to serve its 200 students. One of the stacks was mostly Danielle Steele novels, which in retrospect leads me to assume that the school had a very small book budget and accepted donations indiscriminately.  The classic literature section was just a couple shelves, but I didn’t dare bring Ms. Steele into my parents’ house, so I found myself reading the classic titles one by one.  The Satanic Verses looked scary. My parents would probably send me for counseling if they caught me reading it. To its right stood The Fellowship of the Ring.  That one looked safer, so I took it home.  [Sidebar: Let that sink in. You know it’s a tiny library when there’s nothing between Rushdie and Tolkien.] I read The Two Towers over Christmas break of 1995. I had to explain what it was about to all my cousins. No one in my town had heard of it. I finished the series in January. I loved the poetry and the mythical references. I broke out the encyclopedia again and compared Tolkien’s runic alphabet to the Old Norse elder futhark. Having moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old, I could identify with Frodo and Sam’s life on the road, being cold, alone, and sometimes a little hungry. Suffering from seasonal depression, I could identify with spending months struggling towards Mount Doom. Experiencing night terrors and hag attacks, I knew just what it meant to be alone in a dark, wild forest. I still count it as the realest fantasy I’ve ever read.

After Tolkien, there was Brave New World, and I suspected that my classmates were socially engineered idiots. Then I got my driver’s license and drove myself to the town library. Again, Danielle Steele. But at least this place also had Michael Crichton. I read The SphereThe Andromeda Strain, Eaters of the Dead, and more. I remembered my childhood dream of becoming a mad scientist. In my mind this was a cross between an astronomer and a chemist. The “mad” part came from not quite focusing on this world, constantly searching for a new discovery either way out in the macrocosm or deep inside the microcosm.

The Crichton selection exhausted, a book on the next shelf down caught my eye based on its sheer width. It was easily three times the thickness of its neighbors. As long as it wasn’t horror or romance, I knew I was going to read that bad boy. And thus I spent six months slogging through Les Misérables. Other than the long political descriptions, I loved it. There were people in the world who were worse off than me. Some of them made it out of their hellholes, and some of them didn’t.  It was a matter of will and chance. Not much magic in Victor Hugo’s world.

Looking back, will and chance were the two main force-fields that dictated how books formed me in those childhood years. It was only by chance that I encountered the formative books that I did. I never had an adult mentor put a book in my hands and say, “This is awesome. You should read it.” I had no older siblings to follow, and my few friends were sensible, non-curious people. But when the opportunity for knowledge occasionally presented itself, I had the will to pursue it. 

After those heavily-censored, information-starved high school years, I found myself in a parent-free land flowing with books and ideas: college. And that’s a post of its own.

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