I remember reading a racy novel about Jim Bowie (The Iron Mistress, by Paul Wellman). And, unaccountably, Jack London’s autobiographical Martin Eden—a novel that gripped me from first page to last, a novel whose ending shocked me: a depressed Martin drowning himself at sea. The hero killed himself! Killed himself! This was unthinkable. Wild Bill never would have done it. Or Buffalo Bill. Or Skip Turner, hardwood hero of Backboard Magic.
Even more unaccountably, I read—in study hall at Hiram High School—Moby-Dick. All of it. I have no idea why. But I did it, even though I couldn’t have ingested and digested more than a nibble’s worth of Melville’s massive meal. Did I read it because I had liked the Classics Illustrated cover? The one that showed in the far background the doomed Pequod? In the near background the white whale rising up out of the water, capsizing a whaleboat? With four whalers falling out, arms flailing? With Ahab in the foreground, poised to hurl a harpoon at his enemy? Or did I read it because the John Huston 1956 film (with Gregory Peck as Ahab) was still a recent memory? I had seen it at the Hiram College Cinema on Sunday night, 11 November 1956, my twelfth birthday. Or because I was sick of hearing people allude to things I knew nothing about? And did I notice that—at the end—a lone man, Ishmael, is floating in the ocean, just as Martin Eden did? (Though Ishmael is a survivor, not a suicide.) Many years later I would read Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund’s sexy spinoff and laugh aloud when Ishmael, safely on land again, finds and fucks Ahab’s wife. “I heard footsteps, which I knew well, pass through the house,” writes Naslund in the voice of Una, Ahab’s wife. “From the first night in my bed, we had known the depths of each other; my body had whispered to me as his had to him: This is marriage. It needed no courtship.” Oh, if I could have read that in 1961! And, oh, if there had only been a Classics Illustrated version of it!
In high school there was one English teacher I greatly admired (and feared): Augustus H. Brunelle, who taught Latin and German as well. He was grumpy. He was old. In his mid-sixties, about to retire. We called him Gus—never to his face, though. (I was amused, years later, when I learned that “Gus” was the name all his friends and family called him—in fact, in college, he was “Gussie.” And here we thought we’d thought we were being insulting.) Anyway, although I respected Gus’ great knowledge (he seemed to have read everything), his passion for literature and language, his insistence on thoroughness, on excellence, I just wasn’t ready to adopt his ways. Testosterone combers were still surging through me, their sounds and slosh drowning all else.
In college, my regular reading habits returned—and greatly expanded—mostly due to the influence of Prof. Abe C. Ravitz, who taught American literature courses at Hiram College. He demanded a lot of us—and got a lot. His required reading lists often featured fifteen or twenty titles. (I remember he once assigned all of The Sun Also Rises for the next day’s class.) And Dr. Ravitz showed us something else, too—the necessity for literary scholars to know all that a writer has written. It’s insufficient, you see, to read only Moby-Dick; you mustn’t neglect The Confidence-Man and Clarel, not if you want to know what Melville was really up to. And you do want to know, don’t you?
And so I adopted what I’ll call the Ravitz Method in, oh, about 1964, and have remained true to it ever since. It’s very unusual for me to read only one book by a writer. If I like him or her, I will read everything. All of Jack London, all of Shakespeare, all of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope (that tireless talent wrote forty-seven novels!), Twain, Updike, Thomas Berger … I found myself applying the same principle to popular and genre writers, too. And so I read all of Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, and on and on and on. As I write this first draft on 15 August 2011, I am halfway through the complete works of John O’Hara, midway through his massive 897-page novel From the Terrace.
So once I got interested in Mary Shelley, was there any chance I would not read all of her? And all of her parents’ works? Her husband’s? Her friends’?
All that reading would devour about four solid years of my life. And those books, laid like flagstones on the earth and sea (some, obviously, could float), formed my transatlantic walkway to Castle Frankenstein.