Lonely Impulse of Delight: One Reader’s Childhood

Every reader has two lives—one public, the other secret. The public life is the one visible to our teachers, friends, and families, though none of them ever sees it fully. It consists of our homes and houses, schools and schoolmates, friends and enemies, lovers, colleagues, and competitors. This is the realm of experience universally known as real life. But every true reader has a secret life, which is equally intense, complex, and important. The books we read are no different from the people we meet or the cities we visit. Some books, people, or places hardly matter, others change our lives, and still others plant some idea or sentiment that influences our futures. No one else will ever read, reread, or misread the same books in the same way or in the same order. Our inner lives are as rich and real as our outer lives, even if they remain mostly unknowable to others. Perhaps that is why books matter so much. They serve as our intimate companions. Some books guide us. Others lead us astray. A few rescue or redeem us. All of them confide something of the wonder, joy, terror, and mystery of being alive.

I had a happy, lonely childhood characterized by many odd circumstances—two of which turned me into a passionate lifelong reader. First, both of my parents had full-times jobs, sometimes even two jobs. Among working-class Latin families fifty years ago, this situation was not only unusual but also slightly embarrassing, suggesting a certain financial desperation—not altogether mistaken in our case. Consequently, I spent a great deal of time alone in our apartment or sat awake with one of my parents asleep while the other was at work. (They worked entirely different hours.) The second odd circumstance was our apartment, which was full of books—not popular paperbacks or book-club selections, but serious hardbound volumes of fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy, art, and music. These books did not reflect my parent’s tastes or interests. They read very little except newspapers and magazines. The large, eclectic, and intellectually distinguished library was the legacy of my mother’s brother, Ted Ortiz, who had died in an airplane crash when I was six. An old-style proletarian intellectual, my uncle had served in the Merchant Marine and lived with my parents when he was not at sea.

Special shelves housed the heavier volumes—including more than a hundred bound folio scores, printed in Germany, of the complete works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Haydn. (Tall plywood cabinets likewise lined one wall of our tiny garage holding hundreds of classical record albums.) Many books were in foreign languages—Dante in Italian, Goethe in German, Cervantes in Spanish. These were family books, not the possessions of a stranger or a school. They belonged to us, even if we didn’t know exactly what to do with them.

I grew up in a tight enclave of Sicilian relations. My family lived in the large back apartment of a stucco triplex next door to a nearly identical triplex. Five of these six apartments were inhabited by relations, including my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and various cousins. Other relations lived nearby. The older people had been born in Sicily and had made their arduous and often painful way to Los Angeles via New York City and Detroit. An Italian dialect was spoken when the older generation was in the room. Conversation shifted to English when they left. Although born in Detroit, my father had spoken no English until he started school. Most of my schoolmates in Hawthorne, California, came from similar backgrounds, though their families spoke Spanish. In my parish all grandparents spoke English with a foreign accent—if they spoke English at all.

None of my practical, hard-working relations read much, but neither did they disdain the activity. There were a few books in their homes, but they were mostly inexpensive encyclopedias and young adult classics—books bought, that is, for someone else to read. I never saw anyone open one of these decorative volumes except myself jealously examining them on a visit. In fact, during my entire childhood I don’t recall ever seeing any adult relation, except my mother, read a book. Everyone was busy cooking, cleaning, building, or repairing something. Leisure time was spent together—eating, talking, or playing cards—not going off alone with a book. Kitchen table arguments were especially popular. Everyone argued about politics, religion, money, sports, and people. No one minded these often fiery debates. The only thing that disturbed people was being ignored.

My family had no idea what to make of my bookish habits, but they never mocked or discouraged them. Never before having encountered a bookworm, these stoical Sicilians hoped for the best. One reason Latin families stay tight is that they allow their members latitude for personal taste. Italians also admire any highly developed special skill—carpentry, cooking, gardening, singing, even reading. The best skills helped one make a living. The others helped one enjoy living.

My parents rarely brought home children’s books, so my earliest memories of reading include taking down the uniformly black-bound novels of Thomas Mann or the green-bound plays of George Bernard Shaw looking vainly for something a kid might enjoy. Childhood was slower before cable television, videogames, DVDs, and the Internet. Kids had time on their hands. We had to entertain ourselves, which meant exploring every possible means of amusement our circumscribed lives afforded. I paged through every book on every shelf, however unlikely its appeal. I loved my uncle’s Victor Book of Opera with its photographs and engravings of old singers and set designs, and I constructed my own plots for the operas based on these illustrations. I also grew up seeing reproductions of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Titian, Velazquez, and El Greco, mostly in black and white, before I ever saw the drawings of Dr. Seuss or his peers.

There were few religious books in our deeply Roman Catholic home. My parents owned only the Bible, The Lives of the Saints, several pocket-sized missals, and a single, inspirational paperback by Bishop Fulton Sheen. Although my Mexican uncle, a former Communist, had converted to Catholicism shortly before his sudden death, he had left no devotional texts, only books on comparative religion. I suspect that no other Sicilian or Mexican home in Hawthorne possessed a copy of the Koran. The family Bible proved a keen disappointment. This situation was no fault of God’s word, only its inept illustrator. Our large, cheap edition contained two dozen color prints that were so awful that even a ten-year-old felt cheated. I found spiritual sustenance only in The Lives of the Saints, especially in its vivid accounts of legendary hermits and martyrs. This early imaginative nourishment explains far more about my inner life than I care to disclose.

Although I perused the title pages of Heartbreak House and The Magic Mountain, I never read them until college. I loved the books that boys love—stories of wonder, danger, and adventure. Among the earliest books I remember reading were young adult biographies of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Marco Polo, Napoleon, and John Paul Jones, which were sold at the local toy store. (I had been alerted to Caesar’s existence by a Classics Illustrated comic book.) Exhausting those volumes, I moved into the adult history section of the local library. It may seem odd that in fourth grade my favorite book was Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but I was an odd child, and I can still remember the number of soldiers who fought on each side of the Roman general’s major battles.

I delighted in books on mythology, especially Norse mythology, and devoured prose versions of Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and The Song of Roland. (I had no idea then that these stories had originally been written in verse.) I also read and reread the elegant retellings of myths by Edith Hamilton, Charles Bullfinch, and Padric Colum. How few children’s authors today write prose half as well as Hamilton or Colum did? In fourth grade I discovered unabridged editions of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe in St. Joseph’s tiny parochial school library, which was about the size of a large walk-in closet. No one told me the novels were too hard for a ten-year-old, so I adored them, and then passed them on to my best friend.

Toward the end of fourth grade I had one of my decisive experiences as a reader—my first great literary love affair. I came across a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core on the paperback rack of the corner drugstore. I liked the colorfully exciting cover so I plunked down forty cents and took the book home. It was, I joyfully discovered, the perfect novel— brilliantly plotted and full of action. Over the next few years I read everything I could find by Burroughs—except the perfunctory later Tarzan novels. I also got two of my parochial school friends hooked, Paul Lucero and Ernie Rael. We practiced literary criticism in its purest form—talking about and comparing the books we read in common. We held a general consensus that Burroughs’s first three Mars novels were his masterpieces, with the first two Tarzan novels only slightly less thrilling. I still find it exciting to remember the titles and garishly exuberant covers of those Ace and Ballantine paperbacks—Pellucidar, The Land that Time Forgot, Pirates of Venus, A Princess of Mars, and The Mad King. I read at least forty of Burroughs’s novels, and I have had the pleasure of rereading of the Mars, Venus, and early Tarzan novels aloud to my sons—now marveling less at the author’s breathless plotting than at the huge vocabulary popular writers once took for granted among young readers.
I developed a passion for science fiction, adventure, and fantasy literature. A few of my favorite boyhood writers have now, I am sorry to say, entered the fringe of the academic canon. In my heart, however, they remain forever beyond the reach of pedagogic good taste—H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov—as well as the now mostly forgotten Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Charles G. Finney, and William Hope Hodgson. It was, in fact, dystopian sci-fi that gradually got me interested in literary fiction. I read Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Orwell initially as sci-fi writers, and only then discovered their literary novels. To a working-class, teenage Angeleno, who knew nothing first-hand of the larger world, I must confess that Huxley’s futuristic fantasies, Brave New World and Ape and Essence, were novels I understood entirely, but his realistic social comedies, Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, were deeply obscure and mysterious. Mars I comprehended but an English country house was an utterly alien world.

In fifth grade, I became passionately interested in art after seeing television specials on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. I haunted the enormous Hawthorne public library and over the next four years voraciously read through hundreds of art books. I studied European painting the way other boys immersed themselves in sports statistics. I daydreamed about visiting the Alte Pinakothek, Hermitage, Uffizi, and Prado. At twelve, I could tell you the location of every Vermeer, Massacio, Giotto, or Bosch in the world—and weirder still—could identify the provenance of each painting in Washington’s National Gallery, which I had never visited. I read S.N. Behrman’s biography of the art dealer Joseph Duveen three times and kept track of Old Master auction prices in a little notebook. I spent the money I earned doing odd jobs by ordering museum catalogues and subscribing to Art News and Connoisseur. (One continuing pleasure of adulthood has been to visit the museums whose catalogues I studied as a child.) My parents approved of my odd behavior because they associated my interest in art with academic achievement—just as they associated my science fiction and fantasy reading with laziness and impracticality.

I must stress two crucial facts. First, no one—neither a relative nor a teacher—ever encouraged my reading or intellectual pursuits. Second, my bookish hobbies (except for science fiction) needed to be hidden from my friends. I never confided my passion for art to anyone at school. Luckily, none of my classmates ever seemed to visit the library, so my double life remained safe from their discovery. I was grateful for my anonymity. While I didn’t need encouragement, I also felt no urge to court certain disapproval. Discretion was the better part of valor. My childhood secrecy proved good training. This pattern of a double life—one public, the other one imaginative—was repeated in adulthood when I worked in the business world while secretly writing poetry at night.

I have always been an insomniac. Even as a young boy, I had trouble falling asleep. My parents, both night owls, let their children keep late hours. Once we were in bed, they never forced us to turn off the lights—one of their countless kindnesses. Consequently, every night I read in bed, often for hours. When I remember my childhood reading, I see myself in Sears and Roebuck pajamas propped up under the covers devouring The Circus of Dr. Lao, The Time Machine or The Lost World while my younger brother Ted sleeps in the twin bed beside me. I usually kept the next book I planned to read on my nightstand—not so much as an incentive to finish my current selection but simply to provide anticipatory pleasure. “My library was dukedom large enough,” Prospero says in The Tempest, and so seemed the kingdom of my childhood. The clock would tick toward midnight and beyond while I wandered through Rome and London, Lilliput and Mars. Today I am a world traveler, but life never seemed larger than in that tiny lamplit room.

In my childhood milieu, reading was associated with self-improvement. I suppose this uplifting motive played some role in my intellectual pursuits, but my insatiable appetite for books came mostly from curiosity and pleasure. I liked to read. I liked to study and investigate subjects that interested me—European painting, silent films, dinosaurs, great battles, and mythology. My interests changed and developed year by year. Some of the books I read were quite respectable, like Gulliver’s Travels or Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but respectability never guided my choices.

By the standards of Hawthorne, a rough and ugly industrial town, my love of books was clearly excessive, indeed almost shameful. Not able to control this passion, I needed to hide it, if only to keep it pure. A private passion is free from public pressures. Then I could follow this “lonely impulse of delight,” to borrow a phrase from William Butler Yeats, wherever it led. I read good books for enjoyment just as I did each issue of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, or the Fantastic Four. I can’t think of better ways to learn than through pleasure and curiosity. I guess the reason these two qualities play so small a role in formal education is that they are so subjective and individual. Curiosity and delight can’t be institutionalized.

Childhood and adolescence form our sensibilities. By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure. Surely, this conviction developed from my own self-education in books, and in particular from exploring them with little tutorial assistance—except from an uncle who could not speak to me, except though the mute juxtaposition of subjects in his book collection.

My uncle must have been a remarkable man. Although raised in brutal poverty, he had supported himself at sea from the age of fifteen while also learning five languages and schooling himself in music, literature, and art. I don’t honestly remember him—only stories about him and a few photographs. If I claimed to love him, I would really be saying that I loved the books and records he left behind. I’m not sure that distinction matters much. I think I know him pretty well. After all, he did help raise me.

First published in The Southern Review, Winter 2005.