Why I Read: A Childhood in Retrospect

This isn’t going to be a question I can completely answer. There are numerous reasons why I read. Some of which are obvious, others which remain hidden.

However, I suppose my story begins where I imagine most readers stories begin; upon the lap of their mother.

On Friday afternoons my brother and I would check out one book each from the school library to take home with us over the weekend. Once Saturday mornings rolled around we would then all pile onto an old yellow recliner in the living room, me on one side, my brother on the other, while our mother balanced regally in the middle. And there we would sit, transfixed for hours, as we listened to her conjure up worlds like a sorcerer casting enchantments from a medieval grimoire.

Still another reason relates to my Uncle, my mothers oldest brother. Who was always reading something, usually World War II related, and he always seemed to know something about any topic that came up in conversation. Which I thought, at that time, made him the smartest man in the world. After hearing him say something stupid one day however, that all changed. But really it was a watershed moment in my life because it taught me that adults, just because they grew up and were now older, can still have stupid ideas. Yet, still another, more significant reason, pertains to my father.

The only real advice my father ever gave to me, or I should say the closest thing to advice he ever gave to me, came by way of the 1997 movie The Edge, staring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.

As we watched the scene near the beginning of the movie, Charles (Anthony Hopkins) was challenged to guess what was on the other side of a wooden paddle, the side shown to the audience was of a panther, which was a symbol of the Crew Indians, a traditional motif. The opposite side was of a rabbit smoking a pipe. Which Charles of course knew and answered correctly.

My father asked me how he knew this, to which I responded, that I didn’t know. And then he said something to me that I have never forgotten. And it actually has come to define almost every aspect of my life.

“Because he reads a lot.”

Those few words was all it took. What was once an ember was now a blazing inferno. So, I set out to do the same. I wanted to be as smart as Charles.

At the time we had a complete collection of Encyclopedia Britannicas, this was pre-Wikipedia, and I decided that in order to become ‘smart’ I needed to read through the entire series. And I did. I actually read through all thirty-two volumes. I don’t remember much of what I read however and now most of the information is probably obsolete. But, it was a task that I enjoyed and I do still remember quite a bit from the endeavor. I also remember that I used a discarded wrapper from a snack size Three Musketeer candy bar I had gotten during Halloween, which featured Universal Studios Monsters, as a page marker.

I also read through an old American Heritage Dictionary we had. I actually read damn near everything in the house. Words came to matter to me. And my father seemed to respect the character in the movie we were watching and I wanted that same level of respect. Whether or not I’ve achieved this is anyone’s guess. But I have inhaled books ever since.

And so it’s due to some of these early experiences that I enjoy reading. Especially since it has allowed me to be myself. Allowed me to be alone. I enjoy being alone. Probably more than most. Fast forward to the adult reader writing this essay and it’s no surprise then that I became a writer.

But nevertheless, as I was writing this essay, a memory emerged. One where I was around nine or ten years old, and reading a book by American author Ann Rice, Cry to Heaven, when I overheard my mother being scolded by her family, about letting me read “such filth.” That the book, was “sacrilegious.” They of course had no idea what the book was even about, the name alone had set them off, but my mother never took the book away from me. Nor any other. And that’s the one thing I’m most appreciative of from my childhood. The fact that I was never denied access to any book or movie I wanted to consume. My entertainment was never restricted. Having the freedom to read coupled with the freedom to choose what to read, was the greatest gift my parents ever gave to me. So, Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this, thank you. You’ve enriched my life in ways you could never understand.

But, for those readers who still may be wondering why exactly the rabbit was smoking a pipe? Because he’s smarter than the panther.


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