Thursday, January 15, 2009

In the beginning

When I was six, no older than seven, I was at a neighbor’s house, we were playing hide and seek and in their basement, in a backroom, seemingly abandoned, I came upon a typewriter. It was a huge black metal, up-right thing with small round, divoted keys. It was electric. I pressed a key. Snap! Beside the machine was a pile of crisp white paper. I completely forgot about the game. I loaded a sheet, ratcheting it down and began to type. I swear the very first thing I wrote was: “It was a dark and stormy night, and a shot rang out.” I thought I was a genius.

My friend found me but was oblivious to the value of the discovery I had made. He wanted to go outside, do something fun. I thought to explain that I couldn’t imagine anything that could be more fun than what I was doing. I looked back wistfully at the pure white of the blank page wondering what might come next. Was it a murder mystery? A horror story? I wanted to find out, I wanted to fill the page with more genius, I wanted to see where the little keys would take me, find out who I might meet. We ended up alley-picking until my mother called me for dinner. Alley-picking was the art of walking down the alley between the houses and seeing if there was anything cool being thrown away that we could take for ourselves. I had hoped maybe someone was throwing away a typewriter—no one was and I went to bed that night thinking about that typewriter, thinking about that page and that first sentence. If only.

I forgot about the typewriter. I forgot about writing and by the age of twelve, I hated reading. The first novel I tried to read was a book called Big Red. It was about a boy and his dog. I was going to be traveling in a car for four hours on the way to my sister’s farm and would have nothing to do. This was before DS, DVD’s, VCRs—before all these letters combinations. It was also before Sirius too and I knew that twenty minutes after we left the sphere of Detroit, there would be nothing but static on the radio. That’s why I brought the book. I never read a book before. I never did much reading at all that wasn’t required by a teacher. It wasn’t something I did for fun, but I was desperate. Four hours trapped in the backseat of a car for a twelve-year-old was eternity. I read the book. It took me all summer. I finished it out of a sense of perseverance rather than enjoyment. I wanted to achieve this thing so that when I was forty I could say, “Yes! I read a book once! It was excruciating, and took half a year, but by God, I did it!” Then whomever I was speaking to would look upon me with awe and know they were in the presence of a learned man. The reality was, the book was boring and put me to sleep, and I knew I would never try something so stupid again.

The following year I passed a bookshelf in our home and stopped abruptly when I saw something very strange. This particular bookshelf belonged to my older brother and was forever filled with dozens of neatly ordered paperbacks. I lived with my brother and his books all my life. We shared a room. So I was quite familiar with each of the novels. They were mostly about animals—boys and their dogs books like the one I borrowed the year before. There were also a large number of westerns, espionage, and war books. Looking at the titles was like looking at a TV Guide from the late fifties and early sixties: The Virginian, I Spy, The Longest Day, Get Smart, Old Yeller, The Man From UNCLE. But there was something very different that day. There was one book I’d never seen before. It was sitting out, standing up, its jacket cover facing me. It was an odd book. Mostly white it had a thin border of pink surrounding it and an aqua colored title giving it an Easter feel. Within an oval, was a picture like a window looking into another world. There was an odd shaped hill with little homes built into the side of it, a meandering river, some strange ostrich-like birds and a twisting tree with huge pink fruits. It was entirely out of place with the rest of the books and seemed to know this by standing out front, separating itself from the pack, and I had this odd notion that it didn’t just happen there. I stood looking at the book for a long while. Then I looked around me, wondering if whoever put it there was watching to see what I did. I was thinking this not just because the book was new, but because it was so terribly familiar. The image of the other world, the strange scripting text on the cover, it was like something out of a dream. I felt much the same as I am certain Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters felt when he began building his mashed potato mountains. There was something about this book, something old, something so insanely familiar, but I couldn’t think what. I read the title, but that didn’t help. It was nonsensical. It read: The Hobbit.

I picked up the perplexing book and began reading it. It wasn’t like Big Red. It was an odd little story about people with hair on their feet who don’t like to go on adventures. I wasn’t impressed but I was driven by the mystery that consumed me. What was it about this book? The only way I knew to find that answer was to read it, so I pushed on. The story got a little better when the trolls entered the picture. It was clearly better than Big Red at least. The mystery only deepened. I knew some of the names. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin. How did I know these odd words? I only ever read the one book, and never saw this one before that day? I read on and finally reached chapter five. If you’ve ever read The Hobbit you will know what I am talking about when I say that everything changed in chapter five. This is of course, the chapter entitled, “Riddles in the Dark.” I found myself sucked into the story, lost in the world of goblins and wizards. And then I hit upon the name Gollum. It staggered me. I knew that name! It was so familiar! What was it? Then I read the riddles and finally I knew. I knew this story! I remembered about the ring and the riddle game. I remembered it from my own past, but how—my brother!

I rushed from the room and confronted him. I held up the book. What is this? I demanded. I knew he held the answer. I then learned that when I was very young perhaps only five, and my brother was fifteen, he had read The Hobbit. He was in our room late at night reading it and when he read chapter five, he couldn’t contain himself and slipping out of his bed crept to mine and woke me up. When you’re five, the house is dark and your older brother wakes you up with a flashlight, whispering, you know something important is happening. He told me the tale of Bilbo and Gollum with the passion and energy that a fifteen-year-old uses when it is three in the morning and there is a full-moon shining in the windows. In the coming days, he plastered our bedroom walls with drawings he made from the book covers and blow-ups of the maps within. I lived for several years with these images before my eyes not really knowing what they were. Then we moved and the drawings were gone and the memory of that dark night faded—until I saw the book cover some eight years later.

I read the whole trilogy. I loved it in a way I never dreamed it was possible to love a book. When I closed the last page of The Return of the King, I was miserable. My favorite pastime was over. As I mentioned before this was before all those letters, before Xboxes and PS twos and threes, back when television only had three stations and cartoons were something shown on Saturday morning. I went to the bookstore with my brother looking for another series like that one. There weren’t any. There were some ghastly books like The Worm Ourborous which said they were compared to Tolkien’s trilogy. I desperately wanted to believe them and tried very hard to read it. It made me long for Big Red.

There was nothing to read. I sat in my room miserable and bored. Like all kids I made the mistake of telling my mother I was bored and she put me to work cleaning out the front closet. I pulled out what looked like a plastic suitcase.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That? That’s your sister’s old typewriter. Been in there for years.”

I never finished cleaning the closet.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I love the writer obsession.

  2. It's funny how a single book can change your whole life. Loved this story. Thanks.

    Rob Cornell
    Author of Darker Things
    Let the world you know meet the world you don't.

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