“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain
I loved books as a little kid, but I didn’t necessarily think of the books on my dad’s bookshelves as the same kinds of things that I loved. As far as my own reading went, I graduated from picture books at 3 or 4 to things like Bunnicula and then Aliens Ate My Homework and then Interstellar Pig a few years later. By 9 or so I was into The Hobbit and certain Jane Yolen and Lloyd Alexander fantasy books, and soon after that, I developed my lifelong affinity for Stephen King.
My dad, despite liking the Beatles, was always a sort of inscrutable figure. He had a lot of old books from his college days at Tulane, yellowing undergrad paperbacks, and if I opened them I could see where they’d been marked up with underlining and scribbling. They had foreign authors and difficult first pages. Turgenev, Hesse, and Castaneda are names I remember. But Nabokov was the most common one, and the Nabokov books were particularly dog-eared and marked with scribbles.
I found my dad’s claim that he loved to read a little suspicious. How could you really be a lover of fiction if you didn’t care for, say, The Tommyknockers? (I think I read The Tommyknockers when I was 10. The main thing I remember is that the people under the influence of the alien force craved batteries — lots and lots of AAA batteries — which I found oddly unsettling.) He was doing some other thing that looked like reading but really wasn’t.
Then one afternoon I was home sick from school. I was probably 11 or 12. I had a lot of books waiting for me at the local library — ordered on loan from another, larger library across town — but I had no way to get there because I was home by myself. The only books in the house that I hadn’t read were the Dad-approved ones.
I started with The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, which was actually not an old undergrad paperback but a new, 700-page book that Dad had gotten for me in the recent past, I think when we’d been on vacation in Atlantic City at my grandmother’s house. Not exactly beach reading, I’d thought at the time. But on that day, I opened it to a random story and began to read.
The story was “Signs & Symbols.” I finished it and then experienced a strange vertigo, as if I’d been staring at a pattern that had confused my sense of equilibrium or distorted my ability to judge distances. I probably wouldn’t have articulated this way at the time, but there was a different story beneath the surface of the story, and, if you looked at it from a certain angle, it was about the possibilities of writing. It hinted at a way of perceiving the world that seemed daunting and fascinating. I read the story again. A few weeks later I had finished the whole collection. Then I went to his bookshelf for another Nabokov. After that, I looked at reading differently. I looked at my dad differently, too.