My Life as a Reader
in a Stolen Moment Talkin' Blues
by John H. Ritter
[This essay appeared in Making The Match: The Right Book for the Right Reader
at the Right Time, Grades 4-12 edited by Dr. Teri Lesesne (Stenhouse, 2003).]
From the time I could decode a baseball boxscore in the morning paper, I’ve loved reading, especially reading with a purpose. But I’ve never been a so-called voracious reader. Call it the boredom factor, call it impatience, call it a lust for a certain music on the page, but from as far back as I can remember, I’ve been so picky about what I want from a book that, even today, I finish reading maybe one novel out of every one hundred I start. And it’s not for lack of trying.
I love to read. In my early years, biographies topped my list. Wild and crazy Dizzy Dean, crazier still, Jimmy Pearsall, and beer sucking, hot dog chomping, cigar puffing Babe Ruth, to name a few. And every one was a character. By the time I was nine years old, I’d read all about their lives and a lot more.
And I had a reason. Convinced that some day I would be a pro ballplayer myself, I needed to know what each one was doing by age nine (when I was nine) and at age ten (when I turned ten), and so on, year-by-year, until well into my teens. I needed to know their tricks and jokes. I needed to know how wild I could be. At each turn and juncture, I needed to measure the progress of my dreams.
But with fiction I was more demanding. Where biographies and histories were like listening to the news, fiction was more like listening to music. Novels needed to sing to catch my attention. Fictional prose needed rhythm, melodic themes, subthemes, and harmonies. I looked for licks and lyrics, hooks and bridges, allegros and crescendos. On the page I craved la Vida.
For a country boy who grew up dreaming, I needed novels that could fill my well with thirst-quenching stories, fill the fairground grandstands with characters of wild color, and the whole mountain sky with lies and folderol, sincerity and grace, with gumption and guilt. If Dizzy Dean could tell three straight reporters he was born in three different towns, and none of them the true one, then novels should be able to people their pages with characters bigger than Babe and Dizzy and Jimmy combined. At least for my money. If Jimmy Pearsall could have a nervous breakdown in the middle of a ballgame and climb the screen behind homeplate screaming at a mortified hometown crowd, then characters in novels should be able to jump through that screen and into the minds and lives of those living on the other side.
Ah, but dreams can change. And lucky thing. Because so did my ability to hit a left-handed curveball, coming at me about head high, making me duck and close my eyes just before it magically broke right over the plate. Somewhere around my junior year in high school, somewhere between the time a Charlie Company 1st Battalion 20th Infantry unit slaughtered some 350 unarmed villagers in the hamlet of My Lai and my senior prom, I realized that whatever gift I’d had for hitting a baseball—and the dreams tied to it—were no longer important enough or relevant enough for me to pursue.
It was right around that time when a certain black book fell from heaven into my hands and changed my life. An amazing book—full of crazy characters, of sadness and love, of desperation and revolution, of insight and morality. It was political and poetical, religious and surreptitious. It was a biography of the world and it was pure fiction. I was captivated by it, motivated by it, undressed, unblest, and depressed by it. All that summer, I’d been teaching myself primitive piano, had fancied myself a bluesy, outraged rock star or an actor maybe, or anyone with an audience, anyone with a voice. Then on this one particular hot, dry October afternoon, my older brother left for college and left behind his Bob Dylan songbook.
It was long, lean, shiny, and black, a paperback, over a hundred pages full of musical notes and chords and the most surprising poetry I’d ever read. All of a sudden I had a new dream. I tore the baffle off my electric organ, cranked up the tiny Sears and Roebuck mail order amp, and sang that raggedy book from cover to cover, memorizing beat street lyrics, adopting the wail of a moaning man of constant sorrow, a tambourine man, a weather man, only a pawn, only a hobo, but one more is gone, leaving nobody to sing his sad song, and on and on. And I knew what I wanted to be.
I would be the storyteller, the historian, the biographer of mixed up, dreamed up characters like these, who push fake morals, insult, and stare, whose money doesn’t talk, it swears. Or those who sing in the rat race choir, bent out of shape by society’s pliers. Characters with eyes, with guts.
And so I wrote. Dear God, I wrote. I began carrying around a spiral notebook in my back pocket, cover torn, metal spirals flattened from schooldesk seats, pages bent, half-ripped, but all filled with blue pen lines scribbled out, fast paced, double-spaced, into crumpled civil rightist protest war love songs about jack the pauper who earns money now sellin plants he grows around. Or, the welfare girl who lives next door, sleeps with poisons on her floor. Or, judy who cries to herself at night and gypsy harold lookin bitter an tight, machine gun hermits on a friday night, drinkin in the backseat shot after shot, screamin out the window, what hath god rot?
Stuff like that.
John Updike once said that of all the fine arts, writing is the most self-taught. I agree. You learn to write by reading what other thinkers have thought, what other writers have wrought, by studying the struggles and battles they’ve fought. You watch them riff, then you try it yourself.
Dylan’s poems led me to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, then to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and back again somehow—with different eyes—to Mark Twain’s Roughing It. All journey books, all road poems, all the manic panic of romance and motion that a country boy needs.
A book may show you something new and amazing, or it may not. Depends on the words. Personally, I look for the ones that do. And I don’t think finding one out of a hundred is all that unexpected or disappointing. But to this day, I cannot hear a Bob Dylan song without getting extra nervous.
For my money, that’s what a book should do. It should tie you up, it should work you up, make you think, make you see, make you feel extra happy and sorrowful, extra nervous and bold. It must be dream laden, scheme sodden, soul shaking. And it must do all of this as mysteriously as a left-handed curveball coming at your head, twisting and spinning and making you duck—until, at the very end, it magically crosses home plate, with such grace and command that it humbles, crumbles, and amazes you.