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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Boy Who Read


I hate to read. Let me rephrase that, I loathe reading. This is quite an odd statement from someone who had an insane desire to be a great writer, huh? That being said, I just finished books six and seven in the Harry Potter series in just under a week. Why? Because I love movies.

Now, before your head explodes trying to analyze that statement, let me take you back to the end of the 70s. It’s 1978 and I am only three years old. I cannot recall myself the events that took place in this recount, but I can relay what I have been told by family members. The tale itself has become the stuff of table talk during holiday gatherings among my family. By this time, my brother was at the age of ten and my sister was 13. By requirement, reading literary works was thrust upon us in certain classes by some teachers who were of age during the 60s. One of which made it a point to have his class read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series as well as The Hobbit.

Now, it was at this time that Ralph Bakshi released an animated version of the first two books in the trilogy under the name of The Lord of the Rings. It was memorable because of its style of using live action battle scenes rotoscoped to produce an animated look. It was also remembered as being only half a film because there was no mention of a Part One anywhere indicating that the movie would be continued later. I remember it…yes I said I remember it…because it was the first movie I ever saw. Let me clarify previous statements made by me saying that Star Wars: A New Hope was the first movie I ever saw. I should say that it was the first movie I ever remembered seeing. Lord of the Rings came out a year before I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was rereleased a second time in 1979. I remembered seeing Lord of the Rings, but did not realize that it had occurred before Star Wars because I did not realize that I saw the later version. Make sense? No? Good, moving on.

Anyway, the reason why this is a story told around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas is because apparently I explained it to my parents. That’s right; a three year old explained the plot of Tolkien’s story to his parents. Like I said, this is what I have been told by my family. I don’t remember adding commentary to the film. I’ll take their word on it.

Recollections aside, this began a pattern in my upbringing. “Why read the book, when you can watch the film?” I thought. So much time could be saved by spending two hours in front of the television instead of reading hundreds of pages over the course of days. Well, as you all are aware, part of the argument is that filmmakers get it wrong nine times out of ten when it comes to adapting a literary piece of work. They also get it wrong when adapting a video game but that is a tale for another time. The other, more important, half of that argument is that reading taps into that one thing that drives the five senses, the mind. When you read something, your imagination has to fill in the gaps on the page. What does the character and his/her surrounds look like? How does their voice sound? What does the world smell like? Feel like? Taste like? These are things that the reader supplies on the journey from Chapter One to The End and it makes for a much more enriched experience. I never got that at a young age. I was all about, somebody else can do the work of filling up the canvas, I just want the end product. Regardless of what television characters like Jeffrey from Voyagers or Cap’n O.G. Readmore had tried to pound into my brain about going to my local library, I would rather watch the film than read the book. Imagine the scene in Back to School where Sally Kellerman tells Rodney Dangerfield about several books to which he replies, “great film.”

Still, I read for class but never for fun. It was hard to cheat and watch the film in those days because home video was still in its adolescence and not every classic that had been adapted into a film was available as a rental. Sometimes, I just faked it and it showed in my papers for school. I can probably count on one hand how many books I actually read for assignments and how many I bullshitted my way through explaining in a book report. There was a Hardy Boys book that I butchered, piecing together bits of plot and making up the rest. I was supposed to read Brave New World for an Eighth Grade English assignment and instead read parts of Stranger in a Strange Land because I just couldn’t get into the other book. I also figured that perhaps the teacher would know I was lying because she would have boned up on my original title in order to grade my paper. Switching at the last second might have thrown her off her guard. It was still on the reading list but she seemed very perturbed that I shifted gears and didn’t tell her. Of the books I actually read in their entirety, I can list Animal Farm, Johnny Tremain, Call of the Wild and White Fang as the only ones that stuck out.

Sometime in my mid teens I had a slight change of heart. It was around 1988 and Stephen King had come into my world. I had seen Firestarter, Christine, The Running Man, The Shining, Creepshow 1 and 2, Cujo, Children of the Corn, Cat’s Eye, Maximum Overdrive, and Stand By Me by this time and thought…maybe I should try reading one of his books. That book was The Gunslinger. The first part of the Dark Tower series. It had been released six years earlier in print, but this was the first time I had ever seen it when it in paperback. I snatched up a copy and spent my evenings just prior to falling asleep going through this book with as much fervor as I had watching Star Wars growing up. I was sucked into the world King created without even realizing that it was interwoven with all his other stories. In essence, The Dark Tower was the source from which all his material sprang forth into the ‘real world’ if you could it that. I was like a child who had grown up inside a house, content in my surroundings, not realizing that an even bigger space waited on the other side of the door. I soon found myself reading the second and third book as well as Christine, It, The Body, The Running Man, and The Tommyknockers. Then I branched out into other popular fiction writers like Dean R. Koontz and read Phantoms and Watchers.

In high school I hit that same wall I hit before; reading classics for class was boring. The Red Badge of Courage, the Last of the Mohicans, and other required reading was given a cursory glance instead of my full attention causing me to try and pass tests and write papers with minimal knowledge of the subject. It seemed as though I was only interested in 80s and 90s popular fiction, but not classics. After high school, that suffered as I only picked up a few books from which I had already seen the film like Jurassic Park and The Silence of the Lambs. I had even picked up the fourth Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass, but to date, have not finished it. Though, I have it and Wolves of the Calla in audio format and have heard most of book four. Required reading in college had put an overall end to my leisurely reading and I had not read another book until 2006.

For someone who prides himself on being a historian on pop culture, full of useless trivia and quotes from film and television, I found myself not jumping on the bandwagon of fads at their onset. Like I had mentioned, The Silence of the Lambs and Jurassic Park were bestsellers when they were released but I didn’t bother to pick them up until years after I had watched the film versions, using them as a primer for envisioning the voices of the characters and their surroundings making for a much quicker read. That was the pseudo basis for my reintroduction to the printed word in 2006 when I began to read The Da Vinci Code. Once again, we are talking popular fiction, not classics. But this time around, I read the book before I saw the movie. Still, I had cheated a little because I could see and hear in my mind the voices and likenesses of Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, and Alfred Molina. I’d say I came a long way in terms of accepting books again into my life. The next year, I found myself revisiting a phenomenon that had began 10 years prior of which I swore I would not belittle myself to reading. And that my dear readers is where Part Two picks up and the aforementioned puzzling statement about reading books because of a love of film will make more sense. Stay tuned.

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