I hitchhiked and Eurail-passed the length and breadth of the continent, from East Berlin to the west coast of Ireland, from the tip of Sicily to just inside the Arctic Circle. With all that traveling, of course, I often had time on my hands, and always needed something to read, and therefore engaged in avid and active book swaps with anyone who happened to have something in English I hadn’t already burned through.
I was reading American crime fiction long before I started shaving, but it was a book by Richard Stark (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) that really turned my head: The Hunter /AKA Point Blank(1964). I still have it, a dog-eared little paperback with a plain silver cover sporting a bullet hole and a one-liner: a novel of violence.
I was raised in a household where reading mattered. There were a lot of things we didn’t have when I was a kid, including a television or even consistently running water—this was rural British Columbia, an island on the coast—but we did have books, in increasingly spectacular numbers. At first just a wall of bookshelves in the living room, with encyclopedias and dictionaries spilling out into the hallway; later, the books accumulated in number til they demanded their own room.
From the time I could walk I accompanied my father on his visits to the Brooklyn Public Library branch a mile from our home. The old man loved libraries, had worked in one at the University of Warsaw during his bohemian days when, in the months before the Nazis onslaught –he escaped on the last ship out of the free port of Danzig—he wrote poetry and tried to get on at one of the Polish capital’s Yiddish papers. Though he was fluent in half a dozen languages, literary English was not one of them.
I was one of those high school students who thought reading was bullshit. And books like “Red Badge of Courage”, “Ethan Frome”, and “Pride and Prejudice” weren’t helping my opinion that literature was pretentious and stuck up. I didn’t want any part of the canon, if it was comprised of stilted and boring narratives. Or as Bukowski put it in his introduction to John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”: “…nothing I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me.”
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