I don’t remember learning how to read.
Well, you might say, maybe the process was traumatic enough that I somehow relegated it to the dark recesses of my mind. I should point out, though, that I absolutely remember learning how to swim, and that experience is one I’d gladly forget. No, I think the reason I don’t remember is learning to read is that it happened so early.
My mother was a budding kindergarten teacher when I was young, so that could help explain why reading came so early. My dad says I used to sound out the words on billboards when we took him to work at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I have no recollection of this, since I’d only have been about two or three at the time, but it seems likely, since I still have a compulsion for reading billboards today. Now I make stupid jokes about them, of course.
Whatever its origins, reading became enough of a reflex for me that not much in the way of books escaped my attention. As I got taller, I grew more selective, out of necessity more so than anything else. There was only so much time, after all, and lending libraries then weren’t what they are today. I didn’t read much mainstream fiction or non-fiction as a kid, either, having decided in my ultimate wisdom that it was too ordinary (Spoiler alert: I got better).
What I would read, however, was anything out of the ordinary --science fiction, horror, fantasy--and if I found someone I liked, I’d devote myself to slavishly devouring that author’s entire canon. (It’s also worth noting that this was also when I discovered I was quite the night owl.) Isaac Asimov, Madeleine L’Engle, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin--these and many more writers succumbed to many late-night reading binges.
Later, high school came along, and I moved on to slightly darker fare. Stephen King, Anne Rice, H.P. Lovecraft, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker were my go-to scribes in those days. The classics? Not so much. I was still a snob, and the thought that I would eventually go on to get three degrees in English would have rendered me downright apoplectic.
One day, however, I read a book that would change my life. It was the first mainstream, perhaps even Literary-with-a-capital-‘L’-novel, I’d read that had such a drastic effect on me. Yes, it was ‘realistic,’ in the sense that it was about normal people living plausible lives in an authentic world, but it was nothing even approaching ordinary. The book was John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and it’s still one of my favorite novels. It also has the distinction of being the work that made me want to become a writer and give up the idea forever, both at the same time. It was that good.
This caused a drastic shift in my perspective. Maybe, I reasoned, some of those classics and other mainstream novels I’d snubbed were worth a try as well. And they were. My horizons broadened, new genres opened themselves to me, and I realized there was no way in hell I’d ever be able to read everything I wanted. There are worse problems to have, I know.
But what about my exacting, snobby standards? The truth is they remained the same. The only change that occurred was the new realization that when looking for new things to read, I now had a lot more places to search.
What do I read now? That’s pretty simple. It should be something new, it should be interesting, and the author should be attempting to tell a unique story. That’s really all there is to it. Oh, and it should be well-written, but that sort of lines up with the uniqueness.
If a story tells me something I don’t already know, or even if it tells me something I’m familiar with but does so in a new and unique way, I’m on it. There are only so many tales, as the saying goes, the trick being to tell them in new ways. It may be fiction, non-fiction, horror, humor, fan-fiction, dark or light.
Whether a story is about a borderline-sociopathic Victorian detective, a kid with a wrecked voice, a pair of comic book creators living in New York City in the 1940s, a vampire (okay, maybe not a sparkly one, but that’s just me), a time-traveling World War II soldier, people climbing Mount Everest, an orphaned boy wizard, a haunted hotel, or a possessed Plymouth Fury, if it’s exceptional in some way, then it’s up my alley.
And the story doesn’t have to be set in a far-flung galactic empire, an alternate history, or be populated by furry critters, geometric shapes, or homicidal telepaths, either. Although those can be pretty nifty, too.
J.G. Walker is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives with his wife in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His fiction and nonfiction have been featured in such publications as Oracle Fine Arts Review, Lullwater Review, and Aoife’s Kiss. Walker is currently trying to create the impression that he is at work on his third novel, Visitation: A Novel of Death and Inconvenience. To find out more, check him out at www.courtstreetliterary.com or www.jgwalker.net
Next week, more impromptu flash fiction! We love to write it and you seem to love to read it. Let's hope you still feel the same after next Tuesday. Peas out.