The other day I had strange realization, which I now feel compelled to document. Katie had asked me about what age I started reading, in terms of really becoming a book addict and avid reader. The narrative that I’d always told myself, and it’s true, is that it was a matter of economics.
When I was very small, I’d get comic books when we went to the grocery store. DC Comics used to sell these 3-packs on grocery store magazine racks. They were sealing in plastic, with two comics facing out on either side and a mystery comic in the middle. The magazines were right inside the door of the A&P, and I’d get handed one of those packs and sit quietly in the cart holding it while my mother shopped. It was my reward for behaving in the story. Thus began my lifelong love of comics.
As I got older I had to buy my own comics. I always had money that I earned doing odd jobs. I had a paper route, which is a whole other story for another day. I would go to the newsstand — at that point I was buying single issues at drug stores — get comics, and bring them home to read. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to plow through an issue, depending upon how carefully I was studying the artwork.
Paperback book, on the other hand, took longer to read. I could hit a used bookstore and get a science fiction novel or a collection of short stories for as little as a quarter. Where comics gave me minutes of entertainment, novels kept me occupied for hours. This was around the time I was in second or third grade. I know that by fourth grade, at around 9 or 10 years old, I was regularly reading paperback novels intended for adults.
So far, I was aware of all of this. Here’s where a had a couple of epiphanies, one right after the other. Dots that were very large and very close together, but I never connect them.
As I “outgrew” toys, as in, the adults in my life determined I was too old for them, they’d be taken away. Usually when I was off at school and couldn’t object, which sucked. Most of them got handed down to my cousin, because I’d see them when we went to visit. Others I have no idea, probably to people at church or friends of my grandmother who had kids or grandkids. No one ever touched my comics, because at that point I was buying them with my own money and that may have placed them off limits. Picture books and “age appropriate” things vanished. Novels were never touched, probably because they weren’t age-specific.
In my head, books are things that wouldn’t be taken away from me.
The other realization was that books were the only form of entertainment I had any control over. We had one black-and-white TV in the house, and most of the day my grandmother staked a claim on it so she could watch her “stories”. There were maybe two hours in the later afternoon, between when her soap operas ended and dinner time came around, that I was allowed to watch cartoons. In the evening, I watched whatever the adults wanted to watch.
There were very few personal computers. Okay, the VIC-20 and TRS-80 were out, but I didn’t know anyone who owned one. There were no video games. By the time I was in high school there were cabinet games in restaurants, slowly replacing pinball machines. A few of the richer kids had Intellivision consoles, but I was poor. There was no internet. Cell phones didn’t exist yet. As an only child, my options were to play quietly in my room, draw pictures, or read a book. So I read. No distractions, no conflicts.
The reason I became a voracious reader lies at the intersection of entertainment and control. It was something to do to kill the time, I got to choose what I wanted to read, and they were my personal property. That’s a lot of power for a kid to possess. How could that not shape the rest of my life?