For reasons that could only makes sense to a child who didn’t understand much about life, getting through high school without reading a book was a point of pride for me. I aced tests on Wuthering Heights thinking that Heathcliff was a cat and only remembered Winston Smith’s name when the exam came around, because I had a pack of smokes in my jacket pocket. Quizzes were copied off of smarter, more attentive students. Homework assignments were completed before first period in the hallway, where I’d perfected an assembly-line process of cribbing answers from several different students so as to camouflage my deceit. I was, to say the least, very, very good at not learning. I was a ninja of perpetual ignorance, swatting away knowledge from ten subjects at once. Hi-YAH!
Back then, ridiculous as it seems now, I looked at every assignment as a threat to my independence. An amalgam of ego, fear, laziness and absolutism bent every interaction with teachers into a “me-against-the-world” battle. The stakes weren’t understanding vs. ignorance, they were independence vs. slavery. I loved words. I loved language. I loved argument, rhetoric and song, but I hated the thought that someone could choose for me what I needed to know.
As such, I simply refused to read.
Yet, somehow upon graduation — with my shitty transcript and informational vacuity — I was accepted to university where I assumed the battle for ignorance and self would continue with my professors. That, of course, didn’t happen. Not one of them gave a furry rat’s ass if I studied or not.
As the Fates would have it, I also had contracted mononucleosis the summer after graduation, so when I went to sleep-away college in September, I was unable to participate in the initial months of binge drinking and elevator vomiting with the guys on my dorm floor. While all my new friends were off terrorizing the adjoining girls’ building, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling — no computer to distract me, no stereo on which to play music, no meticulously collated and preserved collection of Hustler magazines.
In short, I had absolutely nothing to do but to read.
I don’t remember where that first book came from, though I like to imagine my father slipping it into my foot locker, knowing that someday I’d join him in the grand and unending conversation that began when a scribe first pressed stylus into clay somewhere along the Fertile Crescent five thousand years ago. I do, however, remember the title: It was a Penguin Paperback copy of Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck and honest to Christ, I never knew anything could be so beautiful.
In this lifetime, we’re presented with only a handful of truly revelatory moments wherein the tens of thousands of tumblers that make up our consciousness suddenly trip off their precipices and fall into perfection and order. Once this happened to me while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean above the Cliffs of Moher. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t need to know the names of all the birds that wheeled above my head, rather it was enough to recognize their arcing grace and symmetry. They were themselves and codifying them into some Linnaean taxonomical chart didn’t mean a fig to the glory of their flight. Once this happened as I lay, close to death, in a hospital bed and realized that love is the matrix, material and meaning of all life in the universe, nothing more nor less. But before those moments of clarity and truth, was the moment I lay in my dorm room, turning the pages on a story of hope and community among the Monterrey canneries — those life-befouled streets where upon homeless men banded together as brothers and the whores had hearts of gold. For a moment, alone and with no one watching, I sensed the truth that brokenness was a prerequisite for beauty. It happened while reading a passage about a slow-witted, big-hearted character named Hazel. Hazel had just received a horoscope reading from the madame at the local brothel that threatened to change his life unalterably.
“You got my stars wrote down,” Hazel demanded anxiously.
Fauna regarded him sorrowfully, “I don’t want to tell you,” she said.
“Why not? Is it bad?”
“Awful,” said Fauna.
“Come on. Tell me. I can take it.”
Fauna sighed, “I’ve checked it over and over,” she said. “You sure you give me your true birthday?”
“Then I don’t see how it can be wrong.” She turned wearily and faced the others. “The stars say Hazel is going to be the President of the United States.”
There was a shocked silence.
“I don’t believe it,” said Mack.
“I don’t want to be President,” Hazel said, and he didn’t.
“There’s no choice,” Fauna said. “The stars have spoke. You will go to Washington.”
“I don’t want to!” Hazel cried. “I don’t know nobody there!”
Later in the book, Hazel, a giant, overgrown child, wrestles with fate and finally accepts his duty, signified by showing up at a costume party dressed solemnly as Abraham Lincoln, fake beard and all.
I still tear up remembering the moment when I felt more love than pity for a man who never even existed. I wanted to tell all of my friends about this book. I wanted to tell them all about this thing called reading!
Did they even known that whole worlds existed in the pages that lined the shelves of libraries planet wide? Did they know that truths sat like nesting Matryoshka dolls, infinitely regressing but growing no less valid for their virtuality?
Dumb as I was, I knew better than to do that. Instead, I just kept to myself, reading night after night — from then until now.
If I had an extant library of all the books I’d read in the past thirty-five years, I’m sure I’d appear a proper gentleman, perhaps even a Victorian fellow with a fine leather chair and a pair of pince-nez on a chain. There would be bound volumes of Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce. There would be tomes on theoretical physics, leaned up against Thucydides and Turgenev. Herodotus and Heller would dance a reel with Khayyam and Keats, while Nietzsche fought fruitlessly to get a word in edgewise between Kant and Camus. It would be a lovely place and at the very center of the room, there would be one book on a nightstand: A dogeared Penguin Paperback, open to this passage.
I’d never lead a soul to the altar, but I’d weep whenever anyone approached.
“I live alone,” he said simply. “I live in the open. I hear the waves at night and see the black patterns of the pine boughs against the sky. With sound and silence and color and solitude, of course I see visions. Anyone would.”
“But you don’t believe in them?” Doc asked hopefully.
“I don’t find it a matter for belief or disbelief,” the seer said. “You’ve seen the sun flatten and take strange shapes just before it sinks into the ocean. Do you have to tell yourself everytime that it’s an illusion caused by atmospheric dust and light distorted by the sea, or do you simply enjoy the beauty of it? Don’t you see visions?”
I do. Thank God, I do.
Michael Tallon is an independent writer currently living and writing in Antigua, Guatemala, where he moved in 2004 after leaving Brooklyn — at least physically. He is working on a nonfiction book detailing his experiences with a rare genetic disorder than nearly cost him his life in 2015. Follow him on Twitter.com/MichaelXTallon. Now go tell someone you love them.