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by Doug Kurtz
I don’t know how to be, what to think, how to choose, who to ask, what to say, if I should. My face is to the glass and my back’s against the wall. I’m outside looking in. My tongue’s frozen to the pane and I can’t find my glasses but the keys were in my hand the whole time. Nah, you drive. Here’s our train. I’d love to treat but I lost my wallet…
A sense of not-quite-thereness, of existential discombobulation, has glazed me since my tweens in New York City–like I’d hopped the wrong subway and gotten off in some dicey neighborhood where I didn’t belong. My teachers called it “shyness,” but that wasn’t quite right. I went to PS-187, a public school in Washington Heights, and felt like the one kid among thousands who didn’t get it, who’d missed the secret directive that might have clued me in to what the other kids knew. On the outside I was street-smart and Toughskins, but on the inside I was desperate to feel grounded on the formica-flecked concrete of my own real life.
I don’t remember when I started reading or which book kicked it off, but once I got going there was no holding back. I became a park-bench addict injecting story after story, and every cliche applied. I loved escaping mundane reality (A Wrinkle in Time); living lives that weren’t mine (My Side of the Mountain); experiencing new emotions (Old Yeller); visiting new worlds (The Lord of the Rings); learning life skills to share with my friends (Forever).
To what extent shyness motivated my habit I can’t say for sure, but it was always in the background working on me, the need to crack the secret, to find a Why behind the What, to decode the exclusion and isolation I felt despite having an outwardly untroubled young life.
The summer before ninth grade (now living far off the A-line in Manhattan, KS–“The Little Apple”) I read the book that made me want to write: John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It blew me wide open, not only because it took me to new heights of escape and emotion and everything else that inspired me to read, but because Garp was a guy with his face to the glass, outside looking in, searching for something just beyond reach.
In Irving’s novel I hit upon the gobsmacking truth that there is no secret. Whatever outside appearances might be, however in-the-know a person might seem, inwardly they’re as clueless as everyone else. Was it the amped-up reality of puberty, a developmental shift from first to third-person thinking that triggered this epiphany? Who knows. But it’s been a vivid memory ever since and it’s the best answer I have to why I love books.
They’re windows onto what’s invisible from the outside, points of light in the subterranean tunnels of human experience. Books let us know we’re not alone down here, that we’re in this together, that our internal landscapes overlap and connect and collide, even if externally we forget it sometimes. They remind us that we’re part of a shared experience, despite the isolation and exclusion we all sometimes feel.
I definitely still do. But right here and now, sitting at Lighthouse and thinking about books and searching for a way to wrap up this blog, I don’t feel discombobulated at all.
Doug Kurtz writes novels, short fiction, articles, and works as a writing coach for aspiring authors. He teaches at Lighthouse.
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. Schedule your gift now. And join us on Dec. 9 for writing hours at Lighthouse and the first-ever Lighthouse Read-a-Thon. Thank you!