I was never really good at stuff. Some kids practically come out of the womb with a stethoscope around their neck or a calculator in their hand. I picked daisies off the grassy field during soccer games and leaped off the boat during sailing class because I liked swimming better. I stumbled learning my multiplication tables and in the fourth grade I got my first “C” on a fractions quiz. But boy did I love to read. In the summer I’d wake up, grab a book, climb a tree and hang until the sky went dark. And when I got into trouble (which was constantly) my parents wouldn’t ground me from the TV or the phone like normal folks. They would prohibit me from reading, from finishing whichever story I was obsessing over that week, recognizing that I did not consider being locked in a room with books a punishment. Of course, I would sometimes sneak around these restrictions, eager to finish the tales of Salinger, Twain, or Alcott, covertly pouring over pages at night under my green sports ball comforter with a flashlight. That usually got me into even more trouble.
Once wasn’t enough. I would read my favorite books three or four times, and sometimes more if it was something really special like an encyclopedia of dog breeds. On weekends, I would explore cardboard boxes stuffed with literature that were packed like sardines in our dusty cellar. Novels, Atlases, Textbooks, Travel Guides, Biographies, World Almanacks; I would devour anything sandwiched between two covers.
Every human makes assumptions, I’m assuming. Last fall, my favorite professor was telling a story and said, “You know when you’re reading and so bored and struggling to keep your eyes open, and then all of a sudden it’s two hours later and you realize you’ve fallen asleep?” Everyone in the room nodded to show that they had experienced this universal phenomenon. Everyone but me. Fall asleep while reading? Never have I ever. The words affect me like a shot of espresso, and I can’t stop, won’t stop, until my eyes have reached the bottom of the final page. Even the densest physics or calculus textbook could not bore me to a snooze. This compulsion has often been to my detriment, since occasionally skimping on reading is a necessary evil, as all smart and strategic English majors know. But I don’t have the heart for that. I hope I never do.
I was built on Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff still makes me giggle, and I sleep with the picture book Animalia by Graeme Base next to my bed. On nights I can’t sleep, I pour over old favorites like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and the Walt Disney’s America collection, which includes classics like the eternally sweet Lady and the Tramp and the eternally depressing Old Yeller.
Massive white bookshelves lined the walls of my childhood room, stocked with a comically heterogeneous collection of texts. Classics like Moby-Dick, Aesops Fables, Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre and The House of the Seven Gables were shelved next to The Boxcar Children books, of which I had over a hundred. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland hung out with well-read biographies on Jim Morrison, Bobby Knight, Malcolm X, and ‘N Sync. Everyone always said I looked (and probably behaved) like the mischievous girl immortalized in Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups roaming the halls of the Plaza hotel in search of adventure. And then there was my copy of the cookbook-esque manual from the seventies on The Joy of Sex—stolen from I-don’t-know-where—that included graphic illustrations of positions not fit for my tween-age eyes. I kept it out in the open with the others, but no one ever noticed. It was just another title on a gigantic bookshelf.
Of course, the usual suspects were there too: Oliver Twist; To Kill A Mockingbird; The Secret Garden; The Three Musketeers; Of Mice and Men; Treasure Island. For many years my favorite book was Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.
I cried when Beth died in Little Women, and when I met Huckleberry Finn it was like I had found a long lost twin. I never wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or an actor on the Disney Channel when I grew up, I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. But most of the time I felt better equipped to be The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and dreamed of running away to The Jungle Book or Walden Pond.
These days, I laugh with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, but I still like Green Eggs And Ham. Oddly, the funniest book I have ever read is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It is not a comedy. The novel exposes the profound flaws of the British judiciary system; the emptiness and arrogance of the law, and is widely accepted as an extremely depressing novel. Nevertheless, his satirical image of society is communicated with brilliance, through subtle yet descriptive details that expose the ludicrous, and infuse the novel with an energy and wit that I have not seen matched.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the only book I have ever quit and thank God too. Erotic Romance is not my favorite genre. The only book I disliked more was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee—which is widely lauded and won the Booker Prize. I couldn’t tell you why.
My favorite stories are about shotguns and fishing poles. Tales that talk about the redeeming power of nature without getting all mushy about it. I like stories about ponds and hounds and whiskey and despair, that speak the most important things with silence instead of words.
I like the stories of Richard Wright. Stories about folks fighting against hate. Fighting for hope and freedom and fairness, for the right to things they shouldn’t have to fight for. Mostly they fail; destroyed by the institutions they challenged without having changed a goddamn thing. But at least they die on their own terms, with their pride firmly in tact. These are characters you can root for. These are people I look up to.
My favorite book is Light in August by William Faulkner. A professor once told me I was like the central character, Joe Christmas, who happens to be a murderer and a generally horrible human being. The comparison is unsettling and I should probably be horrified, but I still find a way to wake up in the morning. He’s not a werewolf or a vampire or a zombie or anything. He’s just a lonely kid who society called a devil and turned it’s back on because they didn’t understand him. Faulkner’s portrait is complex and realistic—He didn’t grow up to be a monster just ‘cuz. The book questions conventional notions about good and evil, and belonging, and it is the best thing I have ever read.
Christmas made me want to write about the beautiful things. Things that have been prematurely condemned; people without a place to belong. The ones who walk unnoticed, who have no one left to remember them. Things we love but take for granted, like burritos or guys who catch ginormous fish, or people who only eat bananas.
The oddballs. The exiles. The silent types. The mixed up and misunderstood. The unconventional scruff-balls that only a mother could love. The ones who gift their hearts to the random and bizarre. The ones who gave their all but lost anyway. The ones who wanted to believe but probably shouldn’t have. The ones who never had a chance.
He is in my spirit each time I pick up a pen. He is in every line I write, in every subject I fall in love with; schizophrenic as they may be. He is in all my non fiction, the true stories I like to tell because putting the truth in writing is to have the soul exposed.
They are all for you, Joe Christmas.