I figure my parents must have started teaching me to read when I was four. Certainly I remember my pride when at the age of five, I could make it all the way through Dick, Jane and Sally on my own. Even before then, my dad and mom read aloud to my brother and me, not just stories but poetry, too. Words—beautiful, lively, evocative words—were a part of my earliest experience.
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat.
They took some money and plenty of honey
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up at the stars above
And sang to a small guitar.
“Oh beautiful Pussy, oh Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are, you are,
What a beautiful pussy you are.
That’s from memory, laid down close to sixty years ago.
By the time I was six, I had a library card. I read whatever I could get my hands on, diving into alternative literary worlds that seemed at least as real as the one in which I lived. I remember the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron haunted me. Then there was book entitled The City Under the Back Steps (now out of print, apparently), a cautionary tale about girl who’s shrunk and imprisoned in an ant colony as punishment for her deliberate squashing of the ants on her back walk. That (obviously) made a huge impression on me—and I learned a lot about ants. A few years on, I was devouring Nancy Drew mysteries, practicing to improve my powers of observation and imagining myself as a clever detective, and a series called Childhood of Famous Americans, bios of people like Sacajawea, Betsy Ross, Helen Keller and Juliet Lowe. (According to Amazon, this series is still alive and well. It now includes the likes of Neil Armstrong and, heaven help us, Ronald Reagan!)
Science fiction—Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov—came a bit later. I read the Foundation Trilogy in junior high school and was sufficiently influenced by those books that I actually called a local talk show to ask Isaac Asimov a question. Before you shrug and say “so what?”, you should know that I was pathologically shy at that point and would do anything to avoid using the telephone. (Remind me to tell you the lost library book story some time.) My passion for his story overcame my terror. (As it turned out, he was rude and dismissive. I was crushed.)
Another milestone I recall was The Count of Monte Cristo, at 1100+ pages the longest book I’d ever read. That was in 8th grade. And Gone with the Wind—when would that have been? Probably around the same time. All I know is that I cried at the end, devastated that Scarlet’s blindness and pride had robbed her of Rhett’s love. Meanwhile, Stranger in a Strange Land, also consumed during my mid-teens, had a huge impact on my imagination and my developing sexuality. I’m certain my tendencies toward polyamory can be traced to the Valentine Michael Smith’s “sharing water”.
For years, I spent my afternoons sprawled on my bed with nose in a book, as my mother would say. She would prod me to get up, go outside, get some fresh air, play with friends. I far preferred the company of the characters in my most recent read to the kids in my suburban neighborhood. Sherlock Holmes—Catherine and Heathcliff—Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—Frodo and Gandalf—Captain Nemo—the eponymous Rebecca in Daphne Du Maurier’s tale and “She” who must be obeyed, in H. Rider Haggard’s classic—there weren’t enough hours in the day to spend with them, as far as I was concerned. Reading let me explore ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval France and Celtic Britain, wandering in both space and time. How could the backyard or the local mall compete?
I have vivid recollections of many wonderful books, up until my late teens. Anorexia really messed up my memory, perhaps due to a lack of nutrients. Or maybe my mental abilities were impaired by the anti-depressants I took regularly for several years. Certainly I read voraciously while I was bouncing around from one hospital or temporary home to another. What else was I going to do? Dropped out of college, estranged from my family, suspicious of all the people who wanted me to eat, torn by anxiety and self-disgust, I took refuge in books. I hardly recall anything I read, however, though for some reason I know The Brothers Karamazov was on the list. Or maybe Crime and Punishment? It’s all a blur.
I hadn’t really read much erotica until I got involved with the man I call my master, while I was in grad school. He assigned me various texts: The Story of O, of course, and Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy, for a start. I discovered Victorian porn, The Pearl, My Secret Life and Laura, a book I’ve discussed here in the past which might not be Victorian at all, but which had a profound emotional and erotic effect on me.
Then in 1998, I happened on a used copy of Portia da Costa’s debut Black Lace book, Gemini Heat, which inspired me to pen my own first novel, and changed my life.
Since then I’ve consumed enormous quantities of erotica, as a reviewer, an editor, and just for fun. My reading tastes remain catholic, however. Usually I’ll have several books in process, at least one of which will not be erotic. Currently I’m reading The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, a literary novel about family and neurophysiology; Carousel by Aurelia T. Evans, which I guess would be categorized as kinky erotic horror; Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons (though I’ve gotten bogged down in this and haven’t opened it for months); and Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities, by David A. Ortmann and Richard A. Sprott. I still adore a solid science fiction tale; The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Baccigalupi and Anathem by Neal Stephenson are highlights from recent years, enthusiastically recommended. Well-written historical fiction can still sweep me away, too, though I was a bit disappointed by my recent read of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
In short, reading is my first and perhaps my most enduring love. The pleasure I’ve experienced writing this post, remembering my favorite books and reliving my first encounters with them, recalls the secret glow I feel after a night of erotic pleasure. Lovers come and go—sexual need fades with age—but books will always be there, or so I pray.
When I imagine my future, I see myself, perhaps infirm, perhaps indigent, even alone, but still reading. Without books, I wonder if life would be worth living.