November 6, 2003
Reading Something Into Some Books
At 14, I had never read a book outside of school assignments -- certainly not for pleasure. I was more of a comic book kid. My parents were concerned and even asked one of my friends to talk to me. I just wasn't interested.
But I liked hanging out at Marboro books in Manhattan. Marboro was a New York book chain that sold books and posters and had large tables with discounted books stacked on them, many for 99 cents. There were piles of art books, coffee-table books and Victorian erotica, a very good way to encourage browsing in a teenager.
I spent hours studying "The Art of the Limerick" -- poetry for adolescents of all ages. To this day, ply me with enough vodka and I may start recalling memorized couplets about complicated couplings.
In my teen years, also known as the meta-spastic era, parents were more concerned about grades than child safety, hence the expression: "You do better in that class or your father will kill you." I think my mother actually said, "disappointed," which in my home was worse than death.
As a corollary, teenagers roamed Manhattan unsupervised, mini-Lewis and Clarks searching to chart the territory and hoping to make discoveries. One particular afternoon found me making my way up Third Avenue, past Woolworth's, Alexander's and Bloomingdale's. I wandered into Marboro.
On that particular afternoon, one of the long-haired college students working there started talking to me. He asked me what kind of books I liked. I said I didn't know.
He asked if I had read "Catcher in the Rye" and did I like it? Of course. But who didn't?
He explained that school could only teach you certain things. There was an alternative education out there, and those were things you needed to teach yourself. He gave me three books to read -- a sort of anti-establishment trilogy: Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," George Orwell's "1984" and Richard Farina's "Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me," which he described as Holden finally goes to college.
I never saw that book clerk again. The next time I went in he was gone. But I read those novels. And after that, I never stopped reading.
I read all of Huxley. My favorite was "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan," which given that it is a novel devoted to a comic look at Hollywood narcissism, seems prescient of my current interests and affectations. I read more Orwell and every spring until I went to college I re-read "Been Down So Long."
Farina made me want to be a writer. Although I've never thought about it -- until this moment as I write this -- there's a bit of Farina in my columns.
There is a great debate about how kids learn and who they learn from. To what extent do we attribute genetics, how much influence do teachers or curriculum have, what role do peers play in what we learn?
Regardless of where you come out on this, we are all, to one extent or another, autodidacts, self-taught, self-invented -- and, in the long haul, it is not just what we are taught that is important but what sticks with us, what we remember.
A guy in a bookstore started me on a lifetime of reading. If my life were broken down into episodes of "Joan of Arcadia," I might think he was a divine messenger.
I would say it never happened again. But something like it did happen just two years ago. My wife and I were at a car wash in Santa Barbara. Another woman was waiting, and we got to talking.
She was teaching at UC Santa Barbara and finishing up her doctorate in literature. What was her thesis on? George Eliot. I told her I was a big "Middlemarch" fan -- the first 400 pages are slow, but after that....
She told me I had to read "Daniel Deronda" and strangely enough I believed her. I never saw her again either.
About two months later, my mother died. As I rambled around the house in midnight insomnia bouts looking for something to read, I started in on "Daniel Deronda." I had found no solace in contemporary work, but I became absorbed with this 19th-century classic.
November is Jewish book month, so let me say this: "Daniel Deronda" is one of the greatest Jewish books ever written by a non-Jew. It is two different books, one about a beautiful young woman, Gwendolen, who decides on a bad marriage, and Daniel who is tempted by Gwendolen but falls for Mirah -- a Jewish woman -- and gets involved in her family, even as he discovers that he is, in fact, Jewish himself.
Deronda forces us to consider the price we pay for compromise, for not following our heart. At the same time, it also ponders facing our decisions, our lives and making the best of them. At the same time, the arguments concerning assimilation, a Jewish nation and life in the Diaspora are so contemporary as to seem ripped from the pages of, well, The Jewish Journal.
Books can give direction to a 14-year-old, give comfort and solace to one in mourning, can explain the world at whatever age or stage of life. Seems like just yesterday, I was at Marboro books, memorizing: "There was a young man from Siam...."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.