I hated Sister Margaret then and because of her I forced myself to throw up the next day so that I could stay home from school. “Okay,” my parents said, “but there’ll be no one else around with you all day.” “That’s all right,” I feebly muttered, in my best Ferris Beuhler voice (though this was long before the movie).
I stayed home bored out of my mind. (My mother hid the tv cord and I could find nothing much to do). I searched the basement and found an orange rectangular book called The Life of Christopher Columbus. It was my older brother’s and it looked cool. I liked the illustrations, Columbus surveying the New World from the prow of the ship; Columbus brought low, in the hold. “I know how you feel, brother,” he seemed to be saying. This was the first book I read by myself, and while I did not exactly become a voracious reader after this experience – who could with baseball diamonds and tennis courts all around? – I was very proud of my accomplishment and kept the memory of that book inside the trophy case of my memory, pulling it out whenever I doubted my abilities in school.
In 10th grade, I remember reading Brave New World on a bench outside school when a P.E. teacher said, “What are you doing with a book, O’Connor?” A P.E. teacher, for Chrissake! This was devastating to me (even though I was a C- student up until this point, finding school unbearably boring and artificial) since it forced me for the first time to confront the image I must have been projecting to the world (or, at least to Coach Kuskie, who might have stood in for the world as well as anyone else in my life at that moment). Brave New World seemed revolutionary to me – prescient, pressing – and I really wanted to know about Huxley’s life and what could have led him to develop his super-cynicism.
I began to read and began to judge people by what they read. My favorite book that year was Black Boy, a book I identified closely with, since it, too, is a story of literary awakening. This book made me want to write, and that year I published two stories in the school literary magazine, The Gift Horse: one a blatant rip-off of the Tolkein craze; the other an almost unsurpassably pretentious story called M.E. (Mount Emotion). No subtle symbols for me; I needed an Everest-sized avatar of my budding personhood.
I coasted through the next four years of school without too many breakthroughs, though some books have stayed with me in powerful ways – The Great Gatsby, the first paper I ever typed, which was an analysis of the Eggs, and Nick’s inchoate adulthood; and all those truth tellers: King Lear’s Cordelia, Holden Caulfield – and everything by Kurt Vonnegut.
But Eleni has been the greatest influence on my reading life. No, not the Nicholas Gage novel, but the woman who became my wife, and still the best-read person I have ever met. She led me toward Henry James, Dickens, and James Joyce. In an Anglo-Irish Lit. class, we read the short story “The Dead,” which features a scene set in Oughterard, County Galway, my father’s hometown. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be Irish-American. Suddenly, my white trash, Mick roots were cool, European. How I loved to hear the professor say that Joyce was the greatest writer of the century and that tiny Ireland, one-fifth the size of Illinois, had produced four Nobel laureates. “Better, I daresay,” he’d add, “than Illinois has done.”
Just before I came back to this draft, I left the living room where my wife and I were reading. She is reading Love Medicine, by one of my favorite writers (I love having read enough to recommend writers), and I am reading Epitaph of a Small Winner, by Machado de Assis, a book I realized just a few pages in will be one of the greatest books I will ever read, a book to whom so many of my favorites are clearly indebted – Marquez, Cortazar, Rushdie.
Reading leaves me feeling elated and despondent by the same truth: You are hopelessly ignorant and the water is rising. But reading has also saved my life. I had been adrift scholastically, teetering on the edge of the world, in danger of drowning like my father, a man who never learned to read. Books, essentially made from the same pulpy substance as Columbus’s armada, have kept me afloat, traveling around the world in search of other seekers.