I love reading — probably even more than writing. First thing each morning I pick up a book, usually on some aspect of writing, and read for about 15 minutes. By doing this at the start of every day when the remaining strands of my subconscious still thread through my conscious mind, I fill my mind with things that are important to me and feed my subconscious, centering my mind for the day ahead. There is nothing like beginning the day in the company of an author who tickles my brain cells.
Recently I picked up a book that promised to make my morning reading ritual an absolute delight. I’ve only read the introduction but my imagination and my love for books is so thoroughly captured I know I will greedily devour the rest of the pages. The book is Robert Schwartz’s For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Book They Love Most, and I believe it falls under the Gee-I-wish-I’d-done-that category. Cast your eyes on this:
Bookstores were of course my weakness and ultimately my way back. As solace from an otherwise law-benumbed life (He had just graduated from law school.) I was soothed by the symmetry of aisles and sections; mesmerized by the vast compression of facts, ideas, lives, epochs, travels, and regions of the heart. Books of imperishable charm, of bracing or painful insights, endless realignments of twenty-six letters — all contained in one impossibly small and dense place, a paradoxical mix of tranquility and sheer explosive power — as if a bookstore or library can be said to breach some law of physics or create a new one all its own, like a nuclear bomb with good intentions. Reading for me had become fun again but no mere parlor game. I would read, as readers do, to tame the unfamiliar or see the familiar through new and enlightened prisms; to see how different, or eerily familiar, another person’s interior life could be from my own.
I have been reading for so many years that I cannot remember a moment when words did not light up my life. I’m an only child. Books are my friends, authors my siblings. I delved deep into experiences, lived well with characters, learned much from the lessons woven tightly into the fabric of the stories. Books are so much more than words on paper; they are conversations. So when I scanned these words, I understood.
Writing, after all, seemed to me the most important thing one could do crawling between heaven and earth for a lifetime, even if I could not say why. Even if, having read the entire set of Paris Review interviews, I could still not really say what writers did or how they did it. Or how their words came together or pulled apart or crumbled in their hands in the course of infinite reshaping.
Bookcases full of slipcovered Heritage books lined the walls of my parents’ home. At thirteen I fell in love with Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, and over the next ten years re-experienced those words and images through an annual re-reading of Stone’s masterpiece. Like Michelangelo, I felt the coolness of the marble, heard the tap of the sculptor’s hammer; saw the figure in the block. I didn’t realize for many years, but that book played an important part in sparking my desire to understand the creative process and later to become a writer. My 1963 edition with full color plates is a treasure that has surfaced during the high and the low tides in my life. A memory held close to the heart is not only meeting the author the year before he died but having him sign my worn copy that had survived my growing up, a flood, and even a fire.
If Irving Stone opened my understanding of the creative process, Ray Bradbury kindled my power and joy of writing. Imagine my joy and awe in not just meeting him and talking with him, but standing next to him ready to assist during a book signing. Reading Bradbury is never a passive act. I watched literally generations of families come to meet their literary hero. The grandfather introducing his hero to his grandson, the father reminiscing with his son in tow. Hundreds of people waited hours, all eyes staring at the man who released their imaginations and set them soaring. Today Bradbury's essay on "The Joy of Writing" found in Zen in the Art of Writing is another annual reading ritual. If, through the reading of words, one soul can touch another, then those pages witnessed my collision.
“Great writers are children of the gods,” writes Bradbury in his famous essay. “Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind.” These writers lived their work, they had fun, knew joy. “When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like lightning bolt?” he yells. “This afternoon burn down the house. Tomorrow pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals. But today — explode — fly apart — disintegrate!”
Bradbury demands writers to write with passion. Easy enough for him, his loves are visible. They saturate his being and illuminate his soul. He doesn’t tap into his passions — they explode from within and scatter across the page. He loves life. His ardor knows no bounds. Writing about his passions is second nature; he cannot help but do so. His exuberance for life and his unexcused love for writing is a siren’s song. “Find your twins," he urges, no matter where in life they reside. Where do your passions intersect? That’s the point where the spark will fire and illuminate your soul.
Bradbury unabashedly scrolls across the genres from playwright to screenwriter, storyteller to short story writer, essayist to novelist. Writing is his playground. Like a joyful Johnny Appleseed, the age-old Bradbury skips across cultural landscapes planting seeds within the fertile grounds of his essays and shorts stories and moves on. He trusts good fruit will follow. Every day Ray Bradbury pushes me to unabashedly grab my pen or pull the keyboard forward excited, even trembling, ready to create the next story, essay, or novel. I must embrace work that moves and invigorates me.
Reading sparked this essay. The constant push and pull between the two processes, writing and reading, continues. This continuous movement energizes me, engages my creativity, and prompts more writing. Reading throws off the comfort of passivity and demands I act. My books, littered with marginalia, stoke the desire to write. I am steeped in good conversation.
Working in a bookstore, living in a home brimming with books, and being a natural library slug, I confess I live with that humming power that emanates from bookish environments. The tactile expression of writers having written words that “crumbled in their hands” resonates as I recall scenes and paragraphs of my own that disintegrated before I barely had time to read them through. Books are the repositories of minds at work and if you listen carefully you might hear them call your name.
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