Some time ago, Angie and I discoved a little thrift store over in Burbank that sells brand new and nearly brand new books for a buck. Hard covers. Yesterday, for example, I picked up a few new Bob Woodward books, a Steven Ambrose and a David McCullough. I've gotten huge tomes there on Orson Welles, Brando, Olivier and Woody Allen. New hardcover fiction from Robert Parker and Nelson DeMille (two of my guilty reading pleasures). New coffee table books, normally priced around 50 to 70 bucks, brand spanking new, for...yep, a buck. I love this place.
Through the years books have saved my life. During times of great emotional discomfort I've always been able to turn to books. I remember a particularly stressful break-up years ago in New York...I stayed in my apartment for weeks reading ALL of the Tales of the City series by Armisted Maupin. When I emerged, weeks later, I was fine. Books. Once again, they healed and comforted.
I was lucky. Early in my life my mom taught me the value of reading. She never forced it on me, she simply read to me. An early example of this was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck. Nightly she would open the book where we'd left off and I was transported to China in the 19th century. Another was A Wrinkle in Time. And also nearly all of the Jules Verne books (Twenty Thousand Leagues..., Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Secret Island). It was a natural progression for me to start reading by myself as I got older. And unlike a lot of kids, I never saw it as something being thrust upon me, but rather a privilege, a gift.
I remember finishing Jack London's A Call of the Wild when I was about twelve or so, too excited to sleep because of the glorious story I'd just been a part of. The same was true of Kipling's Jungle Books. I can remember finishing Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove and the following morning, picking up the book again and starting over, something I've done with no other book. I recall being lost in another world for weeks at a time as I took my first foray through Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkein. I relish the time I spent with Blackthorne and Toranada in Clavell's Shogun. I very clearly remember the fear as I turned the pages of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can still see myself putting the book down, pages splayed, and pushing my head in my pillow to muffle the sound because I was laughing so hard at John Kennedy O'Toole's Confederacy of Dunces. I remember weeping alone in my room as I read the closing pages to the adolescent novel, A Day No Pigs Would Die. And later, I can picture myself in confusion and awe as I finished Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, wondering how he'd managed to peak into my own life without knowing me. I can still feel the rush of adventure as I curled up nightly with the rabbits in Watership Down, cheering them on, and later, being unable to shake off the deep sadness I felt when Lenny is killed in Of Mice and Men. And as I got older still, the beauty and grace I finally grasped when I finally put down Wolfe's Of Time and the River, finally realizing how fotunate I was to live in the rural south during my formative years.
Reading saved my life. The joy of reading saved my life.
When I was teaching full time a question I often heard was 'what is the most important thing a young actor can do for himself?' My answer was always the same: read. Read everything. Read all the time. I don't care what it is; comic books, cereal boxes, newspapers, doesn't matter...read. Just read.
I guess I'm showing my age, but I am simply appalled at the lack of knowledge I see in young artists today. No idea who Herman Melville is, or Hemingway or Faulkner. No idea why they're important or, for that matter, what they had to say and why they said it.
I can remember being in 11th and 12th grade and hanging out in my drama teacher's classroom after school everyday for a couple of hours while he did paperwork, graded assignments, whatever. His room was filled with plays, crowded together in bookshelves that covered all the walls. It was my first inkling of how woefully ignorant I was when it came to theatre. I would pester him, demand answers, question him relentlessly..."Death of a Salesman...' What's that about?" "This Streetcar Named Desire play... That's a weird title. What's that about?" And on and on.
I made it my mission to learn what every play in that room was about. And a few years later I discovered Shakespeare. And began devouring that, too. And that's a whole other story for some other blog, discovering Shakespeare and leaping on the bandwagon of his genius.
The point is, not only does literature - reading - have the capacity to save our lives...it changes who we are. It shapes us and eventually plays a massive role in who we become. It certainly did me.
Every time Angie and I trot over to this thrift store, the one with all of the dollar books, I get excited just walking into the place. Where will this trip take me? What new journey am I about to embark upon? What book am I going to find that illuminates a dark corner I never even knew existed? And finally, what am I about to discover about myself?
See you tomorrow.