When I was a child, I read only a small number of books. The occasional children’s tale and scholastic bestseller, such as R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, those attempts (successful I suppose) at introducing the horror genre to kids, or Dav Pilkey’s hilarious The Adventures of Captain Underpants, those mixes of funny narrative with even funnier pictures. In the fifth and sixth grades, I managed to read the seven Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, though the hidden religious meanings didn’t cross my mind. I just wasn’t smart. But for the most part, books didn’t reach me too often. I was immersed in the video game world of Mario, Sonic, and the first person shooter. Because my eyes were glued to the screen, I didn’t have time to glue them to the page. One of my first deep regrets as a human being.
When I was in elementary school, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was released. I remembered the book fairs advertising the story as one of the most successful around. Yet I was odd back then; I had this strange, still existing sense in me that if something is popular it should be avoided. Why? I think it goes back to the old mentality that, in a lot of matters, the majority is wrong and the minority is right. I think there is this belief residing in introverts such as myself that the crowd is the last thing you want to follow. We want to be the creators of our own paths and not cooperate with others and have a joint business. Vanity is the popular vogue. When you look at pop culture, this is quite true, but we must admit that even nerds can be wrong and cold. Afterall, Frodo would have died in Mordor if it hadn’t been for Samwise Gamgee. Or Smeagol, for that matter.
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 screen took me to a different world, one with numerous, magical dimensions (pun unintended), and the characters were just as complex, 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 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, being in the seventh grade, I read the biggest, most gargantuan story yet: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 734 pages, book four of seven. 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 that I would discover 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 trampolane in the back yard, the sun warming my body. I read chapter 34 of the monster novel entitled “Priori Incantatem.”
I was lost in those pages; Harry, all alone, his lightning shaped scar burning under his untidy black hair, lost in a dark, eerie graveyard, forced to duel Voldemort, the evil wizard with a chalk white face and red, snakelike eyes. Outnumbered thirty to one, Harry’s wand met with Voldemort’s spell, causing his dead parents to smoke into the air, helping 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 furious 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 cannot 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 is what happens when something in this life touches you: you don’t act sane, because sanity these days means stifling the desire to be fully lost in something that is more meaningful than a moralistic church service, incoherent class lecture on social justice, or a repetitive, depressing political rally on T.V. It has more depth to it than anything else, so you want to be engaged with it forever, if you could. Reality is often boring, which is why many compare reading to escapism, the ability to lose yourself in something other than the real world. Controversial, but true nevertheless.
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, I hadn’t quite found a book or series of books that had touched me quite like Harry Potter. Yet instead of using my common sense, I didn’t look for new reads to match them. 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 would only complete half of them.
There was a particular person in my twelfth grade AP English literature class named Kyle Jhant. I hope he will not mind me mentioning him in this foreword. Kyle, in addition to his assigned reads, read other books that were not part of the school schedule. 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 wonder about something I wish to God I had wondered about a long time ago: what if I started reading other books? And just as significant: 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, but one from a much safer distance than Bilbo did when he left with the dwarves and Gandalf. 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 in 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 have 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 has 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 are reprobate, nothing better than to be cast into the lake of fire for eternity. I wouldn’t recommend you to anyone. If you’re a two, you’re not that much better, though possibly redeemable, but as it stands, 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 the 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? And Smeagol creeping behind them, for that matter? 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 is Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Eliot, or even Philip Roth, the man who created a “literary sensation” with his narrative concerning Jewish sexual experiences. No writer is so good that they defeat all the others. At least not in an objective sense. This is not football, thank God.
The rhymes of Dr. Seuss are just as worthy to be called literature as the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth. Literature is what the human heart has to say, and, as one writer brilliantly put it “the only form of prayer.” It is an endless sky of innumerable paper clouds and its horizons can’t be conquered, 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 the pot smoking impulse artists who think attention to form is legalism. No. No. No. No.
Literature is about life.
The story that either entertains me to where I can’t pay attention to what’s around me or that teaches me something thought provoking about my world. Those are the grade five books, the reason video games finally had to sign my emancipation proclamation at the age of 20.