My father worked for Viking press when I was a kid, and I seem to remember every evening when he’d come home, he’d open his brief case, and hand my sister and I a new book or two. It probably wasn’t every night, but however often it was, it was my first real introduction to books.
I remember Robert McCloskey’s books especially – Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and One Morning in Maine. They were stories and illustrations that seemed to assume a certain sophistication in the young reader that was new and refreshing to me. It was a very special treat to give them to my children, and to tell them how they had come into my hands when I was their ages.
When I was in 8th grade, I took a photography class with a man named Paul Czaja (pronounced “chiya”). This was my first exposure (if you’ll pardon the expression) to photography, and it has remained an important foundation that I’ve built on over the years. He later published a small book with my father called Writing With Light. The book I’m sure is long out of print, but I am glad to say that I have a copy. So it wasn’t so much the book that changed my life, as it was the teachings of the man who wrote it.
Then came high school. There are several books that I think all fall into the same category: On The Road and Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. None of these were assigned reading and I have no idea what was assigned (I do remember Shakespeare, the best class I had in high school, but not, I don’t think, life-changing). These books in their own ways showed me possibilities. They showed me, through their fictionalized narratives of actual events, a wider world than I had ever imagined. These were stories about real people who had gotten ideas into their heads, and just gone and done them. Ideas that normal people (like my parents) would think were bad craziness. They also showed me, along with Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, a whole new way of writing, of seeing the world. These authors knew the rules, but they bent them or disregarded them for the sake of the story they were telling. The story was more important than the rules set down in the venerable old Strunk and White.
Vonnegut also showed me though those and countless other books, that anything was possible, that I could write about anything and everything. “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” What an amazing first sentence. Anything can follow from that.
One of my friends in high school was a little wispy hippie girl, very pretty, with long hair and usually no shoes. Every now and then I’d see her with a book – a large softbound book with pages that looked like they were made from paper bag paper, and text that looked like it was made with rubber stamps. When I asked her about it, and asked to borrow it, she smiled in her hippie-mysterious way and said that when the time was right, I’d find it in my hands. Oohh – mysterious! But being at least a wanna-be hippie myself, I accepted her answer as perfectly reasonable, and let it go.
It was probably a year later, when I was seeing a therapist (my parent’s idea – I really had no clue why I was there.), sure enough, I found Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, in my hands. It was my introduction to Buddhism, zen, meditation and spirituality, and it profoundly altered the course of my life. So much so, that I told the therapist that I had found the key, and I would not need to visit him any more. He warned me against making so quick a decision, but I never went back, and never looked back. I think I still have the same copy that I had back then – just about the only thing from those years that I still have.