I imagine every writer has one indelible moment that defined their reading lives — a single book or reading experience that eclipses all the rest and becomes the moment of “that’s when I knew.”
For me, that moment was my twelfth Christmas, when my mom bought me the Foundation Trilogy box set. I hadn’t yet read any Asimov when I unwrapped that gift, but the colorful, evocative Michael Whelan covers fascinated me instantly.
I remember ignoring most of my other gifts and disappearing into the spare bedroom. My grandparents kept that room closed off and unheated year-round, so it was freezing, but I didn’t care. I curled up on the garish purple bedspread, surrounded by my grandmother’s collection of creepy dolls covered in protective plastic, and started plowing my way through the Foundation books.
It took me days to get through them all, of course, but when I finally finished Foundation’s Edge, returning to my own life seemed foreign and almost bland. I lost myself completely in the story, the way only a kid can.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since — the rush of completely immersing yourself in a story, letting the outside world fade into an irrelevant fog. It’s happened a few times since — in my later adolescence, I raced through Dragonlance: Legends in a similar fashion, even shedding a manly tear or two at the end. (It’s easy for my older self to wince and snicker with embarrassment at that, but I still wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.)
I’d love to say that reading Lord of the Rings provided a similar experience, but it didn’t — as a youth, I found Tolkien hard to get through, and only began to appreciate his work later in life. (As a kid, I skipped over everything but Gollum and the end, and didn’t get through The Scouring of the Shire until I was about twenty-five.) I did, however, listen to the Mind’s Eye Theater adaptation of Lord of the Rings on cassette a hundred times or more, and to this day will get very cranky when people lambast its shoddy production values in favor of its presumptuous, snooty cousin, the BBC Radio adaptation.
All in all, though, I can probably count those experiences on the fingers of one hand — the aforementioned trilogies, a handful of Stephen King novels, and a random assortment of fantasy and sci-fi books that I can still pick up today and read straight through without ever putting them down. I still bear a love for the paperback boxed set that borders on the fetishistic — I’ll buy a series just because it comes in a box. The boxed set has gone into full remission these days, mostly replaced by the omnibus, and I miss it dearly.
As life marches on, obligations swell while free time seems to wither, and youthful enthusiasm sometimes gives way to jadedness or cynicism masquerading as wisdom. It becomes harder and harder to get caught up in a good story and ignore the world until it’s over. The lengthy book gives way to the movie or the half-hour sitcom, story delivered up in inoffensive bites, the Wonder Bread of narrative. That’s how it often is with me, anyway. I find reading every day now takes conscious effort in an age of easy, shiny distractions.
Of course, if you’re a writer, there’s a whole other peril to wade through — learn enough about craft and it’s easy to start analyzing every story you read, breaking it down into its component parts, clinically examining its merits and flaws, dissecting rather than digesting. Those childhood blinders are awfully hard to get back on once you’ve taken them off, and flipping the “critic switch” can seem downright irresponsible. Some people rediscovered that joy with the Harry Potter books. I didn’t — but I do sometimes envy those who could.
I often think that the greatest gift I could get these days would be providing that sense of immersion to another reader. If I could, just once, sweep someone away with a story, make them neglect their chores, snub their spouses, maybe even refuse to get out of bed all day, because they just had to find out what happened — well, that would probably be the best Christmas ever.
Do you have a reading memory that’s stayed with you like this? If so, please feel free to drop me a comment and tell me about it.