When I was a child I read only a small number of books. Simple children’s tales, like R.L. Stine’s creepy Goosebumps books for kids, or Dav Pilkey’s The Adventures of Captain Underpants, those mixes of funny narrative and art. In Junior High I read the seven Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, impressed by the Christian scholar’s world of fantasy. But besides these few instances, books didn’t reach me too often. I was immersed in the video game land of Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. Because the screen captured my attention, I didn’t have time to read. One of my deep regrets in life.
In 1997, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel came out. I remembered book fairs advertising it as one of the most successful stories around. Teachers told me I should take time to read it someday. Yet I was odd back then; I had (and still have) this suspicious inclination in me that if something is popular it should be avoided. Why? I think it goes back to the timeless mentality that, in a lot of matters, the majority is wrong and the minority is right. There’s this belief we reserved folk have that the crowd is the last thing you want to follow. We want to create our own paths and not cooperate with others and have a joint business. Vanity is the common vogue, we think. When you consider pop culture this is quite true, but we must admit that even nerds can be wrong and cold sometimes. Afterall, quiet Frodo would have died in Mordor if it hadn’t been for concerned Samwise Gamgee.
As it stood it was only when my grandmother took me and my brother to see the first Harry Potter film that I was pleasantly surprised; the movie transported my mind to a different place, one with numerous, magical dimensions (pun unintended), and the characters were interesting and deep, the best assortment of goodies and baddies you could ask for. On the surface was the enchantment of fantasy. Behind it lied a deep, personal moral: there are things worse than death. It stuck with me. When the second film came out, I was becoming hooked on Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
So I decided to read the first two books. They were pretty much like the movies. And so I managed to read the third novel and I enjoyed that too. At the age of fourteen, in the seventh grade, I read the biggest, most gargantuan story yet: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 734 pages. Never before had a hardback been so long and daunting. But Rowling had charmed me enough to keep me going.
It was on an afternoon during Spring Break, while finishing this particular book, that I discovered the power of the written word, something that immersed me into my imagination far deeper than any video game ever had. I lied on my trampoline in the back yard, the sun warming my body, the thick volume resting open under my head. I read chapter 34 entitled “Priori Incantatem.”
Those pages came alive. I could see the story almost as clearly as the green, weedy bank in front of me; Outnumbered thirty to one in a dark, eerie graveyard, Harry, his lightning shaped scar burning under his untidy black hair, is forced to fight Voldemort, an evil wizard with a chalk white face and red, snakelike eyes. Harry’s spell meets with Voldemort’s spell, creating a golden cage of brightness, causing Harry’s dead parents to emerge as ghostly echoes in the air. They help him find the only way out of the graveyard and back to safety.
I cannot describe how entranced I was, enraptured by the suspense of those paragraphs. And when I finished the tale, with the impression that the wizarding world would have to face Voldemort once again, it became imperative that I read the next book. Indeed, when the fifth book came out later that year I became angry with my mother because she wouldn’t give me a chore to do so I could earn some money to buy the damn thing. I was willing to work all day if that’s what it took. Being spoiled, of course. I could have waited like a decent kid. Another one of my shameful regrets. But eventually mom caved in to my whining and bought me Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from Walmart. I finished it in a week, just as spell bound as ever. I even read the pages aloud to myself, and I can’t help but wonder if my parents caught me doing it one time, wondering if I was sane. I was a strange kid alright. Yet that’s what happens when something in this life touches you: you don’t act sane, because sanity usually means stifling the desire to be fully lost in something that’s more meaningful than a moralistic church service, incoherent class lecture on social justice, or a monotonous, depressing political rally on television. It has more depth to it than anything else, so you want to be engaged with it forever, if you could.
I read the sixth and seventh books in High School, each one more severely anticipated than the last. Afterwards I reread certain sections and memorized passages. I absolutely adored those books, even to the point of ruffling their pages to where they turned black. However, this adoration wasn’t common. Though I began reading classics in my English classes, those writings didn’t thrill me like Harry Potter. Video games still had me trapped, sucking my teenage years away. I remained stuck to the television, and even when I had assigned reads, I’d only complete half of them.
There was a guy in my twelfth grade AP English literature class named Kyle Jhant. I hope he won’t mind me mentioning him in this introduction. Kyle, in addition to his assigned reads, read other books that weren’t part of the syllabus. He liked to read in his free time, always flipping through a paperback in class when we were all being lazy and talking about life instead of tests. I watched Mr. Jhant, and as I did, I began to think about something I wish I had a long time ago:What if there are other books out there as good as Harry Potter but I simply haven’t found them yet?
What if there are other books out there as good as Harry Potter?
That one simple question was what did it, the thing that summoned me to leave the shire and go on a much needed journey. I decided to explore other stories, looking for the next sensation of words.
On an April afternoon after school, during my senior year, I parked my gold Volvo outside of the McDowell County Public Library. I remember telling myself under the sunshine that the time had come for new books to be read, new experiences to be had. It was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made, for it was the spark that ignited my life’s passion. I went inside looking for C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Instead, I found his last published work: Till We Have Faces. Though artistically complex in some ways, I enjoyed it.
So I read more. And more. And more.
And for every book there’s been a new dream to behold, a new chain of unforgettable events. I rate the books I read on a scale of one to five. If you’re a one, you’re useless, nothing better than to be thrown in the trash. I wouldn’t recommend you to anyone. If you’re a two, you’re not that much better, though possibly redeemable, but otherwise, you suck. A three is an okay story, something decent to pass the time. A four is an entertaining read, worthy to be written about and discussed in and out of English class. Well written work, or as The New York Times would say “Dazzling!”
But the grade five books. How can I explain them? They are the reason I want to be an author, the reason I keep reading.
How could I ever touch on what it felt like when Jonathan Harker and his men chased Dracula back to his castle in Transylvania, how the Losers Club searched for Pennywise the Clown in Derry, Maine, how Ray Bradbury revealed the horrors of his dystopia of book-burning firemen, how Chinua Achebe showed us what happens when cultures clash in Africa and how things fall apart, how Samwise helped Frodo through the gargoyle hosted towers of Cirith Ungol? How could I describe the building suspense surrounding Agatha Christie’s ten little Indians, or when Cyrano de Bergerac falls in love but harms himself in denying that love, or the songs of William Blake, with their deep questions about human existence?
There are no words for those writings. They were all as good as Harry Potter, but not better. I have no favorite author singular. Just favorite authors plural. Just as I believe there is no writer who deserves to carry the banner of literature, whether it’s Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Eliot, whoever. No writer is so good that they defeat all the others. At least not in an objective sense. I’m pretty certain this art is not a sport.
The rhymes of Dr. Seuss are just as worthy to be called literature as the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth. The literary horizon can’t be conquered, or narrowly labeled by certain standards, no matter how much you want to be God. Nothing more or less. Remember that, lest you become one of the scholar snobs who looks down on entertaining scenes as novice work, or Puritans who see non-religious texts as trifles, or the pot smoking impulse artists who think attention to form is legalism. I believe you’ll find those views to be self-defeating. Literature is about life, life in all its shades, not just certain ones.
The story that either entertains me to where I can’t pay attention to what’s around me, uses language in new and enticing ways, or that teaches me something thought provoking about my world and myself. Those are the grade five books, the reason video games finally had to sign my Emancipation Proclamation at the age of 20. Sort of.
The writings you have here are my thoughts concerning some of the literature I’ve read over the years. I hope they’ll provoke your thinking and inspire you to read, if the not the works themselves, then at least something else. Somewhere out there, whether it’s on a tablet or inside a paperback, small poem, or 20 book series, there’s a treasured memory waiting for you, a breath of fresh air in this increasingly hectic world we live in, fun that other media can’t match, a meaningful reflection on life, and, greatest of all, another personal voice you can relate to, a kind of ally, though they be miles and ages away. A confirmation that you are not alone in your suffering and confusion.
Literature is the imprint of the human spirit.