Collecting the Past
Over the last couple of years, I have been seeking out books from my childhood that made an impression on me. Books that I don’t currently own, and haven’t read since grade school. There is more than nostalgia at work here, or a science fiction writer’s version of a mid-life crisis. I’m peeling back layers of time to compare what I read in them, with not only the world of today, but the person that I have become.
It’s a journey without roads, or even a map. By finding extant copies of these works, I feel like I am looking through a mirror at the boy I was in the 1980s, gazing back at the foundations that have led me to this point. I am an archaeologist, excavating vignettes from those early years, trying to recall them before time and age makes me forget.
Many of these works were checked out from my grade school’s library, Max Meadows Elementary. I can still remember things that are anachronisms now: the Dewey Decimal System, the card catalogue, as well as the checkout card in the back of each book. On it would be scribbled another child’s name who had perused the same book, taken the same journey. Though many of the books were in library binding, some were falling apart; held together by tape, they were fragile tomes that I probably checked out because I thought the cover looked interesting, or the interior illustrations, if any, caught my attention as I flipped through the musty pages. Eventually I started reading the words. Page after yellowed, musky page. Follow the yellow brick road, indeed.
Now, I’m able to find clean, almost unread copies of these works via internet sellers. They are more than mere trophies for my bookshelf. They are links to that little boy who read and cherished them in that small bedroom of my parent’s house. Who would have thought that such a small space could hold so much imagination, engendered by those books. Perhaps those walls made me look beyond, out to imaginary worlds where there were no boundaries.
First, there was film novelizations. Star Wars, Tron, Star Trek: The Motion Picture — I recall these fondly. In the case of the latter two, I read these books before I ever watched the films, of which I am thankful. Those writers stirred me with these awesome new worlds, whether it was inside a computer, or far out there in space, traveling at warp speed. The novelizations of Alan Dean Foster and Brian Daley grounded those movies in a believable reality. Somehow, even at that age, I knew this was our future as a species; I knew it was my future, though I would never have guessed I would someday be writing science fiction novels of my own.
Though I had to look up the meanings of many words, and many remained obtuse to me, I still read those books, and loved them. I got the gist of them. I belonged in those worlds.
Other science fiction books came — Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, the Star Trek Reader (which introduced me to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy before I watched the original television show) — that cemented my lifelong interest in science fiction.
Next came books on Greek mythology. I loved that subject after my spelling teacher read selected tales to the class from such a book. I was hooked immediately. I’d check out those books, read them, and play out the stories in my backyard at home. I loved the editions written by Olivia E. Coolidge, who didn’t shy away from the darkness within those narratives. I was blown away by characters like Diomedes and Odysseus, who defied the gods before the walls of Troy. I liked the folly, the emotional frailty, of those same gods and goddesses. They seemed like me, capable of love, fear, jealousy, and a whole range of emotions I had yet to experience.
Then there were the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, which I devoured. I read and reread them cover to cover to get to all of the possible endings. Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery penned those early books; I remember The Cave of Time, Journey Under the Sea, The Third Planet from Altair, Mystery of the Maya, Prisoner of the Ant People — those titles, and more, have a place on my bookshelf now.
Eventually I made my way to the history section, where I discovered the reality behind those Greek myths: the Mycenaeans, the Greco-Persian Wars, and the man who tried to outdo those myths, Alexander the Great. Next came the Roman Empire, and the Crusades. This led me to legends such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Ogier the Dane. Being a child enamored of knightly tales and deeds, I would, after reading about the Round Table, play in that backyard again — this time with long gray socks over my arms and legs, representing chain mail, and a thick wooden stick as my sword. That was the first channeling of the influence those stories brought. It’s natural for a child to act out the stories they love, to become that hero or heroine, if just for an autumn afternoon before going to school again the next day. It wasn’t just escapism. It was my way of entwining myself into those stories, making them extensions of my persona.
It was me, doing what writers do, but without words. I was creating.
I still have my Watermill Classics, bought from Troll Books. Titles such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, War of the Worlds, Dracula, The Black Arrow, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and others — I never got rid of those, so I still have the originals I read way back then. Complete and unabridged. Books that are nearly three decades old. A lifetime then…barely a second of time in retrospect. Yet an eternity of inspiration.
Reading through these books today is a different experience. Sure, the nostalgia is here, and I grin at returning to familiar passages — but now I’m a writer too, and often the editor in my head gets in the way of my enjoyment. Passing my hands over the volumes on my bookshelf is a primitive way of connecting to those books, as if they are totems in some primeval ritual that has been forgotten. In my library, the setting sun casts orange-red rays through the window, reminding me that I am not getting any younger, that these volumes will be left to my children, and my grandchildren. That’s the fate of stories. They continue, long after we are gone.
But all I have to do is open one of those books, and the light in the window becomes yellow and warm. In that moment I am transported, and those old words inspire me anew. My backyard may have moved, and my toys aren’t gray socks or wooden sticks anymore, but I’m ready to play again. I now make my own roads, draw my own maps. It’s the dawn of a new day.