books, thinky thoughts

a uniquely portable magic: on books and doors and gateways

Photo by Natalie Collins on Unsplash

When I was little, I used to read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I don’t remember when I started, but there are family stories of me coming up to my grandmother or aunt or uncle with a book in my hand and asking “what’s this word?” There are family stories of me reading things that were far too mature for my age. I didn’t care what I was reading, as long as I was reading. I’d read the same things over and over again because I wanted to relive those stories.

V.E. Schwab recently gave the Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, and she talked about doors – gateway books that got people into reading. For her, it was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone (because she was in the US when she read them and I guess apparently American children were considered to be too dumb to understand what a philosopher was and “sorcerer” was just more exciting? UGH). Schwab also admitted that she has never read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, and brought up a book conference where one of the authors on a panel she was on was shocked that she hadn’t. How had she gotten into reading if not via Tolkien?

Cue the choir of angels

I don’t remember what my gateway was. I do remember a day when I ran out of “kiddie books” and complained to my dad that I’d read everything there was to read. And he reached up to a high shelf in the wall unit we had as a divider in our one-room apartment and handed me a book. “This might be a bit scary for you, but I think you’ll like this,” he said. It was a small, unassuming book, with a strange kind of illustration on the cover. I started reading it, and I was gone.

I don’t remember whether I “liked” it. I don’t remember my favorite parts. I remember being absolutely terrified of the elves and having nightmares about them. I will forever remember that moment when my dad handed me the book. In the movie in my mind, there’s a bright light shining down and angelic choirs singing as he stands there like a giant, reaching up into the forbidden “grown up” books and plucking something out just for me. (Yes, I’m aware The Hobbit was written for children. But between the spiders and the elves and everything else, it was still scary.)

I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until the summer before the movies came out. I liked them, and I see why they’re often considered the cornerstone of fantasy, but I would never, ever say “if you haven’t read/didn’t like these books, you’re not allowed to be a fan of SFF. I’d never, ever say that about any books, because I hate gatekeeping in all its forms, and also because for me, reading is about experiencing new things and having fun, not about checking off a list of the “must-read” titles and being able to prove that you are a “real fan” and not a “fake geek.”

Susan was robbed

A few years later, my grandmother and I went to visit an aunt, and I got sick. As I lay there, bundled up in bed with a fever, I looked at the bookshelf and grabbed something that looked interesting. Those seven books weren’t long, and I was a fast reader, so I think I got through the entire Chronicles of Narnia in a few days. I remember going to sleep one night, still feverish, and mutttering “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan” under my breath. When I woke up the next morning, I was convinced I had actually gone to Narnia and had great adventures. I don’t know if I ever actually told anyone then – I think I might have actually kept it a secret, like something special, something just for me. I cried like a baby during The Last Battle, but I have never gotten over the shitty treatment of Susan. “No longer a friend of Narnia” my ass.

I had the opportunity to read the books again as an adult (we read The Magician’s Nephew in college for our Classics of Children’s Literature class), and I have to say, being unaware of the Christian allegory makes for a much different reading experience than when it’s made explicitly clear.

Reader discretion advised

When I was still a “kid,” I wasn’t allowed to watch the film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s The Teutonic Knights, because it was pretty violent and there were some scenes that my family thought might be objectionable for me. Ironically, nobody stopped me from reading the book itself. I reread the description of the big battle countless times, over and over, before moving on to Quo Vadis and The Trilogy before I was six or seven years old.

When I moved to Canada, I had a brief period of adjustment as I learned a new language and read simpler things so that it would be easier to understand. So there I was, in grade eight, doing my book report on Little Lord Fauntleroy while most of my class did theirs on Flowers in the Attic. (I read it a few years later, I think when I was in high school, and couldn’t get over the fact that 14-year-olds had been allowed to do book reports on that book).

Uncle Steve makes it all better

So by the time I was a teenager, I was pretty much hooked on reading. And I still kept reading everything I could get my hands on, which explains why one day, when my dad and I went to a garage sale and I had some pocket money to spend, I ended up buying a bunch of paperback Stephen King novels for a buck each. I don’t remember what the first one was, but oh boy, that was it for me. I couldn’t get enough of them, and I haunted the thrift stores and garage sales to get more and more. I think when I was in grade nine, we had a membership in the Book of the Month Club (or maybe I signed up as part of one of those free trial things, I don’t know). I ended up getting the unabridged and complete version of Stephen King’s The Stand, and then lugged that 1153-page, 3.7-pound brick around with me for at least a couple of weeks. I took it with me to school, I read on the bus, I read wherever I could. I couldn’t get enough.

 

I’ve fallen away from Stephen King books in the last few years. I’ve moved on to different genres, different authors, but there will always be a place in my heart for Uncle Steve. Especially as I re-read The Stand for the umpteenth time, because how can I not re-read my favorite apocalypse story in the whole wide world?

Just one more chapter

I’ve recently made a resolution to end every day with a bit of reading – even if it’s just a few minutes. Sometimes I have to remind myself to put away the tablet or the phone and pick up the Kindle instead, but most days, it’s automatic. If I’m chatting with someone, I simply say, “OK, I’m gonna go read now,” or I put away the evening’s work, or I turn off the movie. I pile up the pillows and make myself comfortable and I read. Sometimes, if I’m tired, it’s only a few pages before I start drifting off. Other days, I have to make myself put the book down because it’s 3am and I really need to sleep. And I don’t know if it’s not too early to make that kind of connection, but my dreams seem more vivid and I think I’m sleeping a little better. So, you know, maybe books really are magic.

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