All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
I wasn’t supposed to find the books. That’s why they were not on the family’s bookshelf in the living room but rather in a brown paper grocery bag, tightly rolled up and stuffed in the corner of my mother’s closet under a box of sewing supplies. I proceeded to read my way through four amazing titles before I was caught going for a fifth and reprimanded, gently and appropriately, for violating my mother’s privacy. However, she did not chastise me for actually reading the books, being wise enough to know the damage, and benefits, were a fait accompli. Indeed. She also understood that curiosity—in particular, literary curiosity—is a tremendously good thing in a child, a quality to be cultivated, not stifled. I remember how we sat on the edge of her bed while she quizzed me on what I had actually read, and I was able to explain the basic narratives of each book in this most unlikely of reading lists for an 11-year-old boy: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Heller’s Catch 22, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Sure, much of what I read escaped my understanding, though the mysteries lodged in me for later discovery. What was a punk kid to make of the deeply circular nightmare of Yossarian and his beloved Luciana, the Italian woman to whom he makes love and who consequently refuses his proposal because she thinks he’s crazy for wanting to marry a woman who’s not a virgin? Some of that got past me, but not all of it. I may not have completely sorted out the rich tones of irony surging through Heller’s prose, but I knew it was there and I did grasp the underlying absurdity that forms the novel’s theme. I was, after all, a good Catholic boy—an altar boy, for Christ’s sake, and I mean that literally. I was a stage hand at the theater of the absurd: go dress a drunken priest in ornate vestments in a dim sacristy early on a Wednesday morning, attend him as he manages to slur his way through a funeral service without actually missing a single word, and then go home and read the chapter where Yossarian is denied a military discharge because abject fear of getting shot or blown to tatters proves you’re sane and therefore ineligible to be discharged for reasons of insanity.
In retrospect, I was reading the right book at the right time. Some gear clinked against some other in my brain, a wheel groaned and turned, and I was thereafter not the same, not a child, never again entirely naive. Literature did it, or more correctly, it catalyzed an awareness that allowed me to cope and led me to grow. All the conditions were present for me to recognize how deeply weird this life is and how ridiculous our institutions appear if one pays close enough attention to how the doors in the jailhouse are not well squared. Books catalyzed this change in me, as books have done and will continue to do for any astute and avid reader.
That’s why bad people burn them, or in Solzhenitsyn’s case, suppress their publication. And I did read Gulag next. Yes, the Stalinist politics were over my head—no surprise there—but this book taught me what cruelties humans were capable of perpetrating, cruelties to the body so extreme they become cruelty to the inner being, to the soul as I would have called it then. One sequence of scenes stays with me in which the narrator is interrogated many times, over and over, until the days lose their patterns and dissolve into continuous misery. Between humiliating interrogations he is led back to his cell, a cold, narrow cage in which he cannot properly stand and is forced to perch on a low metal post not much larger than broom handle. When he nods off in exhausted sleep he is brutally awakened and made to sit again. And there is more, so much more. My callow mind could barely comprehend what had happened in the Gulags, and that it was going on in other places, all the time. This was not a novel, I understood—a hard lesson, and I learned it.
Next came Huxley’s book, which terrified me because it’s supposed to do so. Soma is not that hard a concept to understand, even for a boy, once its leaden implications settle in. Sex without love, or for that matter with love, might have been obscure to me before my adventures to the forbidden library but considering the books I’d warmed up with, new recognitions like this were coming hard and fast. The final scene of the Savage’s frenzied self-flagellation instantly rendered a childhood of Disney, sandlot baseball games, and religious iconography irrelevant in ways I probably cannot fully explain to this day. Don’t see this as a “loss of innocence.” I’d grown up with the dogma of original sin so I didn’t figure children were innocent, a fact confirmed for me much later when I raised two kids of my own. I’ve since shed the dogma but kept the lesson, courtesy of that summer of literary experience and insight that clarified a lot of vagueness about just what was really going on around me.
Thankfully, I did not ultimately come to rest in Huxley’s world. I finished with Vonnegut. Those who understand what I’m saying here have probably read him, deeply. Those who don’t, should. All that was gouged out of me by the preceding books was healed by Vonnegut’s wry voice, though in the way a scar seals a wound by marking it. This was not by virtue of the book’s plot, which is desperate enough. An exhausted Bokonon finally comments that he wishes he could place a book about human stupidity at the peak of Mt. McCabe, an act worth laughing at or crying about, and we may as well do both since they are very nearly the same thing. Vonnegut returns to this message again and again in his books, always with a gentle hand. I should know because since then, I’ve read his entire oeuvre in search of that unique narrative voice resonant with humor as a balm for all injuries, compassion to assuage the sharpest pain, and a wacky assertiveness that detoxifies the blackest absurdities.
And this, finally, is my point. I have been a seeker of literary experience and its power to transform my mind and strengthen my will since I was quite young, going back to a time even before that summer of my eleventh year. My family actively fostered reading, creating in me a lifelong love of all to be found in the pages of books. Every time I walk into a library or bookstore, every time I read a review and am drawn to a book because of it, every time I am gifted a book by a friend whose taste and knowledge of literature I trust, every time I finish one book and turn to the next-reads shelf in my study, I’m thrilled by the possibilities of how I may be moved. And every time I put my own lines down on a page, I strive to make the same possible for my readers.
Chris Ransick, Denver Poet Laureate from 2006-2010, is an award winning author of five books of poetry and fiction, most recently Language for the Living and the Dead (2013). He is a member of the Lighthouse faculty.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!