The Reading Life, part two

Several months ago I blogged about when I became a reader.  It was a particular book, at a particular time, and you can read the blog here.  A reader, once made, is seldom unmade, and I can recall other milestones where a book carried me out of myself like that first one did.  Sometimes it was a novel I was reading for the second time: the first didn’t make that great an impression because I simply wasn’t ready for it.  Some of these books still hold up for me (though without the original punch); others I’ve outgrown (though with affection); but all of them contributed something to my growth, not just as a reader but as a writer.

The second novel to have an almost-physical effect on me was T.H. White’s re-telling of the Arthur saga, The Once and Future King.  I read the first part, The Sword and the Stone, around age 11, but the whole 900-odd pages had to wait for a couple of years later, when I was going through a period of enforced idleness after a bout with myocarditis.  This was an inflammation of the heart sac that nearly killed me (I didn’t know that at the time) and meant being tutored at home through 8th grade (which I didn’t fully appreciate until going back to school in 9th grade).  But what might have been hellish for a more active child was rather heavenly for a kid who wasn’t a big fan of physical activity.  I’d rather sprawl in a chair and read than line up for softball at recess any day.

The Once and Future King fell into my hands, at my sister’s recommendation, toward the end of that sabbatical year.  And after rereading the first part I went right into the second and then–somewhat to my surprise–read all the way to the end.  I’m pretty sure I read it again within a few months, and at least three more times before graduating high school–and even wrote my senior theme on it.  If there was a defining book of my teen years, this was it.  The Sword in the Stone, which can be read, and was even published, as a separate novel, ends in triumph.  But as everybody knows–or should!–the Arthur saga ends in tragedy: my first experience of the same.  Intimations of tragedy came in Part 2, where scenes of high comedy (Pellinore finally catches the questing beast) are intercut with the unhappy childhood of the four Orkney boys and their witch of a mother.  (T.H. White seems not to have liked women very much.)   The episode of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth capturing the unicorn was the saddest story I had ever read up to that point–but it was an exquisite sadness, even an artistic kind, of which the Mamas and Papas would later sing, “It’s a pleasure to be sad.” 

Part 3 introduced the character of Lancelot, whom the author was inspired to make hideously ugly (like Anthony Quinn, my sister thought) and burdened with original sin.  Would a 13-year-old understand that?  No, but I was beginning to.  Here’s a sentence I remember word for word: Lancelot has just restrained himself from killing someone who deserves it, and knows he deserves it, yet pleads for mercy.  Lancelot turns away with revulsion, and “felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the very things that made him brave and kind.”  Wow! thought my 13-year-old self.  How can that be?  Through a fictional character I was discovering the complexities of the human heart, of which the prophet Jeremiah says, “Who can understand it?”

The Silver Stone, my first milestone book, introduced me to greatness of theme; The Once and Future King showed me the possibilities of character.  (I wrote more about that here.)  The book has its flaws, and philosophically the author and I parted company long ago, but I will always owe him a debt for introducing me to humanity.

In the weeks ahead I plan on writing about other milestone books, and what they contributed to my writing career.  You want to know what they are?  Okay: Raintree County (pathos); Anna Karenina (life); Perelandra (transcendence); The Deptford Trilogy (texture); Lonesome Dove (setting); The Secret History/The King Must Die (terror).  There may be more, and I may change my opinion about the chief contributing factor, but that’s the list as I recall now.   Should be an interesting journey, and I hope not just for me.


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