H.P. Lovecraft turned me off from reading once. I wish I could say it was because of his well-documented racism, but I was a little girl when I read Lovecraft for the first and only time and hadn’t known he existed before much less known his attitudes toward black folks. The fact that he nearly destroyed my love of reading makes sense in the end.
I was around ten or eleven when I bought a collection of his short stories, one of the first books I ever bought for myself, at a school fundraiser for what I can’t recall. The book sale was held in a small class room in a separate building on campus with a single row of foldaway tables set up in the back of the room, onto of which were scores of mostly paperback books. Since this was the first time I was buying a book for my very own, I wanted to pick something special. The cover of Lovecraft’s collection of stories intrigued me. The shadowy figure of a strange and frightening beast lurked menacingly in the background on a dark, cobblestoned street lit by old-fashioned street lamps. My imagination was lit. I plucked it, along with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, from the table, handed my five dollars to the woman manning the lock box filled with bills and coins, and walked proudly back into the sunlight with my classmates. I showed everyone my acquisition of the Narrative, and they nodded approvingly, but secretly I coveted the tales of Lovecraft. It seemed weird, and at that age I was developing an interest in the weird––tales of UFO abductions and Bigfoot sightings which were as popular on TV in those sun-lit days of the late 1970s as they are today.
I wanted to delve into this strange new world, but when I began reading the first story, I found myself continuously thrown back out of it. Reading through Lovecraft’s torturous lines was like trying to breathe with a plastic bag over my head. My stomach muscles clenched and my head grew dizzy. I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs before I put the book down again. Diving into Lovecraft’s world was like plunging into a shadowy, labyrinthine nightmare filled with cobblestoned New England towns and odd beasts whose presence haunted the psyche and drove men mad. It was an appealing world, but trying to read through Lovecraft’s oblique language was very well driving me mad.
Like a masochist, I tried again, determined to finish what I started. I feared something was wrong with me, that perhaps I was suffering from some reading disorder that prevented me from finishing anything longer than a few paragraphs before I grew nauseous and threatened to vomit up all those lines. This was a terrible thing, more terrible than being diagnosed with cancer. What would I do if I couldn’t read? It never occurred to me that I just wasn’t going to enjoy every book that was written or that some books were poorly written. I believed with naive ardor that writers were never wrong. They belonged in that hallowed ground of gods whose powers set them apart from the rest of us ordinary folks. As a shy, friendless Black girl whose love for books was growing into a quiet passion toward writing, I was easily seduced by the romanticism.
And yet, as hard as I tried to finish that book, I never did. I wrestled with Lovecraft and lost. Like any child used and abused, I blamed myself. It was the last time I would read with any regularity. Occasionally I read whatever was lying about the house, Frank Herbert’s Dune or Theodore Sturgeon (one of my older brothers is a huge sci-fi fan), but years passed before I read anything for pleasure in between. My experience with Lovecraft had scarred me so thoroughly that reading was no longer a pleasure, but a chore. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I discovered I was indeed suffering from a malady. I was a functioning aliterate.
Mr. Weaver, my psychology teacher, helped me with that diagnosis. One day, during class, he began a lecture on the differences between illiterates and aliterates. An illiterate was someone who couldn’t read, but an aliterate was someone who did know how to read but chose not to. I never knew such distinctions existed. I rarely read myself outside of school assignments. An oppressive realization about myself crept up on me. He asked the class to write on a scrap of note paper the last book we read and when we read it. I struggled for a long time to come up with a title. The last book I remembered reading was Dune and that was three years before. After all the scraps of paper had been turned in, Mr. Weaver read them aloud to the class. It became apparent that my classmates read with far more regularity than I. Of course, looking back on it now, they could have listed off the names of books that were on their required reading lists, but to my seventeen-year-old self I was startled by the revelation that I was what Mr. Weaver described as an aliterate. I could read, but chose not to. I felt ill. I didn’t want to be aliterate. I wanted to write. And even then I knew that if I was going to be a writer, I had to be a reader as well.
That day I made a conscious decision. I was going to read. I went down to the campus library after school and browsed through the many rows of makeshift, metal bookshelves for that one inaugural tome that was going to reconcile me with the world of reading. I picked out the first book that seemed the most appealing. In this case, it was the book’s cover. Yes, I know. One must never judge a book by its cover, but there are times when breaking the rules are called for. I didn’t do too badly. The book cover, set against a dark blue backdrop, had grotesque Harlequin figures that looked like reflections in a Funhouse mirror. It was weird and intriguing. Something interesting had to lie between its covers. The book turned out to be The Stranger by Albert Camus.
I had never heard of Camus before, nor knew of his legacy as an existentialist. For that matter, I knew next to nothing about existentialism. And yet when I read the simple, clean prose, I was swept away by the imagery. The clear descriptions of Algeria––the whitewashed, stucco homes, the sparkle of the blue Mediterranean, the whiteness of the beach on which Mersault, the main character, inexplicably kills an Arab man––pulled me into the story. I didn’t ponder on the philosophical meanings of the tale, but rather the images. It felt as though I had been transported to Algiers, smelled the clean, sea air, felt the stultifying heat, the grit and sand, and the claustrophobic world of Mersault’s inner mind. I had never read anything like it before––so complete in its sense of setting. I found again the pleasure of reading, its ability to transport and transcend time and place simply through the power of words.
After Camus, I read Stephen King’s dark imaginings in The Dead Zone. When I returned the book to the library, the librarian asked me if I liked it. I answered with a curt, shy nod. It would be years before I learned to dissect what I read and articulate what it meant. Over the years, I continued reading even when my writing habits slowed down (this is another story altogether). One Christmas, one of my brothers gifted me two Toni Morrison novels: The Bluest Eye and Beloved. I devoured The Bluest Eye, loving the clarity in her vision and language. Beloved proved to be far more intimidating. I had read reviews of the novel and knew what it was about. It was a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. I stared long and hard at the paperback’s cover. A young Black woman was in period dress, her head lowered so that the brim of her hat concealed her eyes. The image was apropos. There were things Ms. Morrison was revealing in her work that no one should gaze at with the naked eye. There was too much shame in the past. Why bring out all that dirty laundry? Yet it was the very nakedness and rawness of her writing that nudged me beyond shame. She revealed the beauty lying beneath the ugly surface. She made me want to uncover my eyes and see.
Novels can have that affect, that seductive ability to draw the reader into its world, smash all her preconceived notions, and leave her ravished and satiated. Not all novels have that power, though. Sometimes, they are just fun reads. During those years, I read voraciously. When I had run out of things to read, I reread the same books. I not only read novels, but newspapers and magazines, too. Anything with words I devoured. As I grew older, my library grew as well. It swelled in size to the point where it was running away from me, where it seemed there were more unread books on my shelves than read (and, honestly, what real reader can say she has read everything on her shelf?). Life gets in the way, and time too. But, like patient, well-behaved children, my books wait for me.
When I think about it, I am amazed I ever lost my love for reading at all. Sometimes when I come across a book that is boring or torturous to get through, I often question myself and my reading capabilities (I haven’t completely recovered from my encounter with Lovecraft). It took a while for me to learn how to explore the book itself, to ask it questions not only from the perspective of a reader, but of a writer as well. Why isn’t this book working for me? Is it the style? The tone? the language? Or perhaps it’s the story itself or the characters that aren’t grabbing me? By investigating the novel itself I am investigating my own choices as a writer. How would I have tackled a similar subject or character and in what style or choice of language? This might seem like backseat driving, but in essence it allows me to explore my own capabilities as a storyteller. Reading, for the writer, should always be an investigation. I close a keen eye on word choices, syntax, structure and form, dialogue, character development and any other elements that create strong and indelible stories. I believe this is the fate of all writers: We become observers of the world and of literature. When I read, I am writer, editor, and reader. I interrogate the text itself, instead of, like my childish self, interrogating and castigating myself.
Yet in the end reading is a deeply pleasurable experience. I don’t mean pleasurable in the sense that it is unchallenging or mere entertainment (though a good book can be very entertaining). Far from it. Rather I mean that the joy of reading should be derived in the very act itself, the immersion into a world made up entirely by the use of words. When we turn reading into a chore, something we have to slog through simply because it is good for us, then we destroy the natural inclination we all share in the pleasure of words. A good book delivers its reader into the moment, where the past and the future cease to exist and all that remains is the glorious now. To love reading is to love words, to see them spread across the page, to sound them in our heads or to read them aloud, to hear the music in the way vowels and consonants click and bang and clatter together. A well-written book ought to roll off the tongue like a beautiful piece of symphony. That is pleasure.