|Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley|
Mary Shelley was not the first writer to obsess me. Jack London, Anne Frank—I’d read compulsively about them both. But I wasn’t always an obsessive reader. Not at all. I had no more than the usual fondness for children’s books, and my favorites were unremarkable and widely popular with other kids: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Story of Ferdinand, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, Bartholomew and the 500 Hats. My family also owned a massive volume, Anthology of Children’s Literature, 1948, more than a thousand pages long, whose illustrations I enjoyed, even when I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) read the accompanying story. The endpapers alone were exciting—St. George, aboard his white steed, about to hurl a spear into the fiery mouth of a dragon. One illustration showed cocky Goliath laughing at David, sling in hand; another, Robin Hood battling Little John on a log over a stream; another (from The Adventures of Billy Topsail), Billy in a boat using an axe to battle a giant squid. I wondered about that squid’s two large deep blue eyes. They make him look gentle, sort of. Curious, not threatening. Almost human. My own eyes are blue. Joyce’s too. Our son’s.
Throughout my elementary school years in the 1950s, I read mostly Westerns and biographies, especially of Westerners like Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, George Armstrong Custer. And I read novels about sports—novels like Backboard Magic, a story about Skip Turner, a kid cut from his high school basketball team. He moves to another town where he becomes a star. And guess which team his new team faces in the state finals? And guess who’s a hero? Makes the clinching shot? I also read some childhood mysteries—the Hardy Boys and (without ever letting my friends know) Nancy Drew.
But when waves of testosterone began surging onto my beach, I pretty much stopped reading—pretty much stopped doing anything involving the thinking part of my brain, except, of course, for that part that was creating repetitive scenarios involving me and girls who’d mysteriously misplaced their clothing and their inhibitions. These films unspooled continuously in my imagination for … well, for years. Endless entertainment—and frustration. Because they in no way resembled my actual life.
I started reading again—slowly, slowly—when I had too much leisure in high school. Tiny Hiram High had scheduling issues, issues it resolved with study halls. I had lots of them, all four years. My senior year, I had four classes in the morning, four consecutive study halls in the afternoon. Such homework as I had (rather, such homework as I deigned to do) rarely took more than one period; that left study halls for idleness. But in my high school years (1958–1962) teachers had no tolerance for a student’s simply staring into space (nor for any head-down-on-the-desk naps), so I had to find things to do.
Hiram High study halls met in a large rectangular room on the top floor. The individual wooden desks, bolted to the wavy pine floor, formed five parallel rows that ran most of the length of the room—but up in front, behind the teacher’s desk and a low row of magazine racks, was the Hiram High School Library, whose volumes, I’m sure, totaled fewer than five hundred. The library also subscribed to the two local papers—the Cleveland Plain Dealer (for whom I became a freelance op-ed writer and book reviewer—a gig I neither imagined nor desired in high school) and the Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier. Also available … popular magazines: Time, the Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life, Popular Mechanics, Collier’s, Boys’ Life, Reader’s Digest, and a few others. And so—depressed by the long dull carpet of empty minutes unrolling before me each study hall—I would eventually drift up front to the library, where I would sit at a table and read a magazine (okay, look at the pictures in Life, the cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post) and, when boredom truly threatened to ossify my brain, pick up a book. Look over some words.