I wasn't a reader as a kid. Okay, I wasn't exactly a reader...I was a re-reader. Somewhere along the way I got stuck on The Little Engine That Could and Winnie-the-Pooh. And I stayed stuck there until I hit third grade.
I've often wondered about that over the years. I came from a huge reading family. We sat around most of every Sunday, each in our spot in the living room and read. Mom in her deep wing-back armchair with a murder mystery. Dad in his simple padded chair with a Henry James novel and the dog lying across his feet. My sister reading literary novels, art, philosophy of the 60s (as it was happening), and me with "The Bear."
I've always enjoyed rereading and rewatching movies. For me there's an emotional comfort. A safe place of knowing what's coming, yes. But much more I think it's about reliving an emotion I enjoy (to this day I still get desperate fits of giggles when Roo gets the hiccups in the middle of Pooh's party).
There was a problem with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kaye was already a friend of the family and knew just how smart I was (I sure didn't). I spent almost the entire year at the table in the corner. Not because I was being bad, but because she was giving me a different curriculum than the other kids. Dad was an IBM engineer, who for some reason had bought a house thirty miles from the plant in a tiny farming community. So, while my classmates were destined for their parents' farms, Mrs. Kaye decided I was destined for more than that.
One thing she did was she just kept handing me books. I'm sure there were dozens upon dozens, but the first one that struck was one I pulled off our own shelf at home. Jack London's Call of the Wild. You want to see an eight-year-old kid weep, it was me at the end of that book. It is not the death of Buck's human friends that got me, nor the sense of belonging that he found with the pack. It was that immense loyalty, when he returns each year to mourn his lost friends. Writing this I now see where my adult loyalty comes from. It's very black and white, just like Buck's. I'm intensely loyal, unless you cross me and then I'm done with you. (No, I don't rip out people's throats like Buck, I just move on. Just sayin'.)
I still own three books from my childhood: 2 Winnie-the-Poohs, and that volume of Call of the Wild. I've carried it with me for over 50 years, but I've never reread it. It's one of those memories that's just too right the way it is and I don't want reality messing anything up. (Curious side note: my peculiar reading habits meant that the first time I read any other children's books was when I got a stepkid of my own. I discovered Goodnight Moon right alongside The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Harry Potter.)
From Call I ripped through London, plunged into Melville, and discovered non-fiction in the form of biographies about Arctic exploration. Tenzing took me to the top of Mt. Everest and I followed Captain Bligh across the seas (both the Nordhoff and Hall full trilogy, and Bligh's own account).
A First of a New World
Then one day, I believe I'd just finished Moby Dick (and sorry, it's not some symbolic journey about the madness of revenge, it's a story about a whale, yawn [and yes, I reread it as an adult, I still don't "get" it])--which would make it 5th grade--and as I set it down, Dad finished a slim novel by Arthur C Clarke called The City and the Stars. Mrs. Kaye's indoctrination that what you did with a book was "pick it up and start reading" launched me into another world.
Is it a great book? Not really. But it's about a boy who billions of years in the future is...different. As he discovers why, he also saves the future of humanity against all odds. Unlike Call, I would reread this book many, many times over the years. I wanted to be Alvin, I felt like I was Alvin and just needed a world to save.
I was hooked. It would be years before I read in any other genre. Ninth grade English A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? "Would it be okay if I did a book report on Stranger in a Strange Land instead?" Grapes of Wrath? "How about the Foundation Trilogy?" I always got away with that, until Senior English.
An Old World
This was the second great teacher of my life who changed my reading. Mrs. Kane taught "Adventures in English Literature." The poets never hooked me. But Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables, and the complete works of Shakespeare (the last would take me a while). That she was trying to introduce me to the poetry of Shelly and Byron just never quite seemed to work, but I'd discovered the classics. However, none of these stood out for me as a "First" the way The Call of the Wild or The City and the Stars did.
An Older World
The third great teacher, for a college student in geophysics, was Professor Cole. He brought ancient Greek history to life and suddenly I was in the world of Plato, Aeschylus, and all the others. But while I loved it, it didn't affect me at that "first" level.
At about the same time though, I stumbled on James Clavell and Ayn Rand. Tai-pan taught me more about action-adventure and other cultures, but Atlas Shrugged is probably my favorite book of all time. I'm always, out of sheer loyalty, fighting the good fight past any reason. Am I happy with the false leaders or the ending choice of going on strike against the world? Not really. But the battle? The fight for justice against all comers? OMG! I've read ever piece of fiction she ever wrote and some of her essays.
A More Exciting World
Shortly after college I stumbled on another first, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. The next five years were completely about thrillers for me (well, thrillers and science fiction). Sure I read The Hobbit and the other essential fantasy novels, loved them, but they weren't world changing the way Bourne was. A man who didn't know himself, surviving against impossible odds. He lead me to Three Days of the Condor and The Eye of the Needle, but it was Bourne who still reigns clear in my mind decades later.
A Loving World
I had one more real "first" waiting for me. The small publisher of my first fantasy novel wanted to prove that men wrote romance, I didn't. Still, she took me and three other guys to Romance Writers of America National Conference. We were four of the 7 men among 1,800 women passionate about their genre and their craft. I read a half dozen romances at the conference (mostly at night, I don't sleep much at conferences).
But my "first" romance was handed to me over a year later by a woman I was dating (who I've now been married to for over 20 years. No correlation there, I was totally nuts about her before she handed me the book.) But it was a book that ultimately launched the first 50 novels of my writing career.
Laura Kinsale's The Prince of Midnight (with a close second of Susan Wiggs' The Charm School). A flawed hero, a headstrong heroine who finds bravery despite all the reasons not to... I was a goner!
I peer back through a glass darkly:
- The Prince of Midnight - romance
- The Bourne Identity - thriller
- Atlas Shrugged - action-adventure thriller philosophy(?)
- The City and the Stars - science fiction
- The Call of the Wild - action-adventure
- and even the old Bear himself - fun
I've written 50 romances about "Strong Women and the Men They Deserve." And I've had such a great time doing it.
Now with action-adventure thrillers, I've just hit the USA Today Bestseller list with a story in an anthology and Amazon #1 bestselling novel, both in my Miranda Chase series. Am I moving back through my "firsts" as a reader? Am I eventually going to be back into science fiction? Or perhaps an action-adventure-SF-romance-philosophy?
I don't know. But I do know that we are deeply shaped by what we read, by what our "firsts" are and that emotional journey that books make us take inside ourselves.
I've changed my writer's motto to include my thrillers, "Strong Women and the World They Deserve." But it all actually traces back to my most core beliefs, "To Champion the Human Spirit." It's something I try to place at the core of every action and choice I make. I like to think that Kinsale, Ludlum, Rand, Clarke, London, and even the old Bear himself would all approve.
I'd love to hear which books were your "firsts" and maybe even how they changed you.
USA Today and Amazon #1 Bestseller M. L. "Matt" Buchman has 60+ action-adventure thriller and military romance novels, 100 short stories, and lotsa audiobooks. PW says: “Tom Clancy fans open to a strong female lead clamor for more.” Booklist declared: “3X Top 10 of the Year.” A project manager with a geophysics degree, he’s designed and built houses, flown and jumped out of planes, solo-sailed a 50’ sailboat, and bicycled solo around the world…and he quilts. More at: www.mlbuchman.com.