antosca“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.

nabokovI 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.