Welcome back to BOOKMARKS, a monthly series in which I ask writers to reflect on the moments where words, and what words can do, entered their lives, i.e. made a mark. From school buses to laundromats, we’re traveling back together to those instants that sparked imagination for years to come… join us, won’t you?
I came to literature through stories. I didn’t discriminate much. Any good story would do, though my taste tended toward the mindbending, stories about time travelers or exploding stars, stories in which everyone on earth had perished except for one boy. I wish I remembered my first great reading experience, but those experiences sift backward in time until they’re lost in the haze. Not too long ago, though, I came across a copy of The Omnibus Book of Science Fiction. I’m sure I was eight or nine when I read it, blacking out dozens of words in the text with an indelible marker. I have a vague memory of that – of destroying words that didn’t sound right, words I disliked viscerally, words that sounded ugly. Fanny. Windowpane. Platelet. Slyly. If the experience of literary reading involves aesthetic judgment, discretion, questioning, or a sort of interior back-and-forth with the text (and, so, its author), this marked-up old science fiction book is certainly a record of one of my very first literary experiences. And perhaps it also marks my (not-too-auspicious) beginnings as an editor.
There was a little girl on a field trip to the art museum. Her class had gotten ahead of her while she lingered behind to watch a copyist at work on a reproduction of a beautiful Dutch still life. Then, when he turned aside for a moment, she reached out to touch the painting. It was just so beautiful; she couldn’t help herself. When she saw that she’d left her fingerprint in the wet paint, however, she grew frightened and ran to catch up with her class. Later in the day, as the class was leaving the museum, she passed the painting again. The copyist had taken his easel home with him, but she lingered over the still life, admiring the colors. Then, suddenly, she noticed a smudge of paint, her fingerprint in the corner! Dumbfounded, she realized that the copyist must have swapped the original painting with his copy. He was a thief! (At this point, the school bus reached my corner and I clambered down and walked home, leaving my mystery book behind. I never found out what happened, and I’ve been wondering about it (and searching for it) ever since! I must have been about nine years old.)
It was Yoko Tawada’s short story collection Where Europe Begins. As soon as I started, I wanted to stop. I kept reading, resigning to stop reading. The dirt was being stirred by dancing feet. All the faces were terrifying. All the dances were so intimate and with me. I couldn’t tell you if I read the book sitting, standing, or twitching. When I finished, I was too scared to laugh. The next day, I laughed myself inside out.
The first time I felt like literature entered my life was when I was in high school. It took some time for me to make a connection to literature and it may have been because I grew up in a working class environment, which guided my belief that I had to find a connection to something that would be profitable; I needed to study something that would lead to a job. And how could I make a living through books?
Until that point in my young life I wanted to be a scientist. I had developed a love for the world, seen and unseen, through physics. The behavior of the universe was very real to me—space and time were all around—and I wanted to understand what made it tick. Looking back I was a young, queer boy trying to make sense of the natural world, but instead I should have been making sense of people, including myself. I was trying to be objective through the study of physics—avoiding people entirely. I was an anti-social teen, what a surprise?!
In my sophomore English class we read many books—one book every two weeks. As in life, we need to be exposed to as many characters and stories as possible—the more encounters someone has with stories the more likely they’ll find a story or character that will make a mark on them. For me this character was Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Raskolnikov’s character reflected many anxieties I had about the world—the fear of being discovered, the pressure to conform, and the pressure to confess. It was overwhelming for me as a young, queer to see a character dealing with insurmountable pressures. His anxiety is caused by cultural expectations and of course caused by his own murderous actions. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of an individual undergoing psychological pressure was very real for me; it still is. But then I never imagined that words on a page could be so transformative. This was the start of my turn toward literature to find my place in the world and to learn how I could use words to connect to others in the world.
The first book I learned how to read was The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree. It was always scary to me, the cover where the tree looked like some kind of horrifying monster about to slash the kids with its twiggy claws, the cobwebs and alligators once they get into the tree, the knights, and the furious sleeping bear at the end (wait, weren’t they bears? Were these kids just doing a little B+E on their neighbor’s house?) I was terrified of the book before I learned how to read because, despite the fact that my parents read it to me countless times, I worried maybe the words in the book might change, or my parents were sanitizing a much grimmer end to the bears. Sure, the illustration shows them running off to Mother Bear at the end but who knows? Maybe the words said they were too slow and got eaten at the last second before their horrified mother’s eyes. So that’s the book I learned how to read first, because I knew that if I gained the power of being able to understand the words within, the book would only make me scared of it if I let it.
I’d have to say that Tobias Wolff’s collection The Night in Question is the “bookmark” for me. Strangely though, my introduction to it wasn’t through reading, but via a This American Life show on “Last Words.” I was doing laundry at a laundromat, NE Detroit suburbs, while listening to a Walkman (a gem of technology then) and this story came on about black box recordings (from planes that had crashed) that was overpowering that particular dreary Michigan morning. It wrecked me, these pilots trying to get messages out to their families before, you know, the end. Then they followed with Tobias Wolff reading the story “Bullet in the Brain” from his collection. The previous spot had primed me, got me all emotional I suppose, but then this story about a bank robbery where this book critic gets offed in the first minute or so, then all the things he (Anders) DIDN’T remember over the one thing that he did. The way Wolff warped time, space, memory, life, notions of worth and self, and on, and on, well, that was it for me. I was overcome with this realization (while folding whites) that of all the things I’d done to that point in my life (still pretty young but with a notable record from my time in the navy) that none of it had been important, lasting, of worth or note in comparison to the creation of art. Everything seemed pale and silly compared to writing a short story that could gleam and reflect and incite and empower the way that story on the radio did for me. I remember looking out the big front windows of the place. There was a dingy snow clinging to a blacktop lot. I had recently started toying with poetry in a basic creative writing class at a local community college, so it wasn’t like the event displaced me from being a business major to an artist, I was leaning art history then, but it did demonstrate to this particular novice what was possible from a writer in full possession of their skills: and that was nothing short of the power to move people beyond whatever it is they planned, to something greater. I haven’t looked back since.
Happy reading, dear ones. ‘Til next time…
–– Sophie Klahr ( contributing editor, poetry editor 2010-2014)