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When did I fall in love? So often, too easily. Looking back, I see myself as a pre-teen Chet Baker, with a book instead of a trumpet, falling in love, and in love, and in love. I had more first kisses than I can count, but some of the most exciting ones were–

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This short story was a favorite of my well-read mom. Something in its mix of glamour and nuttiness appealed to my ten-year-old self. At the time, though, I thought it was just an amazing story, and tried to think up my own versions of it (lost to posterity, I’m afraid).

“The Young Immigrunts”, by Ring Lardner. Another short story, this one a favorite of my dad’s. All I remember is a moment that delights me now as it did then, and delights my ninety-four year old father, too. A family is on a miserable road trip (this would be in the 20’s, when the story was written). One of the kids asks the father some variant on Are we there yet? And this is how Lardner tells us what happened next: “Shut up, he explained”. Irony! Wit! Surprise! The moment it took me to get all that, the moment that invited me in to Lardner’s particular playground.  Loved it then, and love it now.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. A novel. This was not, as some might think, the “lost” George Eliot novel about a country pastor and his doomed love for a small, misshapen blind girl, but a cheap and shitty paperback, one of a series put out to capitalize on a boy’s craze for all things U.N.C.L.E. I read it a dozen times in Bunk Three at Camp Winnebago. The villain’s name was Tixe Ylno, and the mystery was solved (spoiler alert!) when Napoleon Solo realized the name was Exit Only spelled backwards! I remember how heavy, how valuable that little paperback felt in my hand. Again, at that time, I was moved to cook up my own startling plot revelations, all of which I have forgotten.

But those were just warm-ups for the coup de foudre, the cloud of words contained by covers that, once I came across them, would change everything, forever. I’m talking about To Kill a Mockingbird, which was just published, and was some years from becoming phenomenal, when I was eleven. I read it then, my parents had it around the house; I remember being, at first, impressed with myself for reading a “grown-up” book, but that self-regard evaporated a few chapters in. I was lost, and found, at the same moment. I still remember a few rows of words on the last page, as Scout ends her telling of this time in her life, with these quiet words about her father, the immortal Atticus, keeping watch by the bed of his wounded son …

He would be there with him, all night, and he would be there, when Jem waked up in the morning.

Now, maybe I got some words wrong, but I don’t care. What matters is those words caught me. Fifty years later, I still flush when I think of them. If I open the book to the last few pages, I can read them again as if I’ve never read them, and when I get to those last words I cry, as I did the first time, as if at sixty-two they still bring me the same startling news they did at twelve. Words can thrill you. Words can move you. Words made the world, and were the world. And Harper Lee, down there in the South, somewhere, was the first messenger to bring me that news, and with it the shadowed suggestion that someday I might want to not only read a book but write one, too. Maycomb, Alabama was my first love, the one that made all those that came before it vanish, the one that has accompanied me through all my real and writing life.