Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to Love a Book

This book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart, but you will never forget it. 

Shortly before we moved back to the United States from East Pakistan, on the precipice of undergoing a revolution to become Bangladesh, we were frightened by an event that made my family and I pack our bags for flight. We had been in Dacca three years, and for the first two, life had been sedate, albeit not normal. Nothing on the  Subcontinent appears normal to westerners. But we felt safe. We were Americans after all,  the White Gods, impermeable .

This past year, however, our status as rich foreigners made no difference to the rioters and demonstrators. Because I was young, fourteen, and lived a privileged lifestyle rendering me immune to local politics, I didn't pay much attention to outside forces unless they inconvenienced me. My brother Paul and I attended the American School, and began missing school at least once a week because of  strikes and curfews. Phone service grew sketchier, and power outages occurred almost daily. Still, I had my books. I read by lantern light.

Our house had a flat roof, perfect for watching weather or surveying happenings in the neighborhood. One  spring evening my father and i stood rooftop after supper and noticed a trail of light snaking its way in our direction. "What is that?" I asked.

Dad squinted, and said, "I don't know. Go get the binoculars."

I returned with the field glasses, and my father stared at the light, now much closer and brighter. "Jesus," he said.

"What is it." He handed the binoculars to me. A crowd of men, perhaps a hundred, carried lit torches. They were shouting, waving the torches, and heading toward our street.

One of our servants stood in the doorway at the top of the staircase. "Sahib, it is not good what is happening."

What are those men saying, Kardir?"

"Death to the governor, Sahib."

The governor's daughter lived in a large new home caddy corner across from our compound.

My father hustled us downstairs, shouting for my mother and brother and I to pack a bag. "We may have to get out tonight."

I retrieved my blue suitcase from the godown (closet) and flung it on my bed. This bag had seen me through several trips across the United States and overseas. The suitcase was blue, yet covered with decals and stickers signifying various places i had journeyed.

"We might not be coming back," my father had said. "Take what you need,"

I gathered up my favorite books, records, my diaries, yearbooks, and a few souvenirs and dumped them inside the bag. I threw in a few clothes and sat on the case to close it.

 My father came in to get my luggage. "What the hell?" He set it down and opened it. "You can't take all these books,"

But you said take what's important to me."

He sighed. "We can buy you new ones when we get back to the states. Now pack some more clothes. "

After quick negotiations, I was allowed to keep my yearbooks, diaries, a few record albums, a couple of souvenirs and one book. I filled the rest of suitcase with clothing and a pair of shoes. Dad and I dashed to the back fence where my mother and brother waited in the dark.

The solitary book was a paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye. The book had leapt into my hands one day when the book wallah, a man who sold books from his bicycle, every Saturday, visited our house when riots didnt keep him away. The cover bore a picture of a young man wearing a brown coat, backwards red cap, and a red scarf. He was illuminated by lights from a strip club at night as he held a battered suitcase littered with stickers, much like my own. 

The text on the cover read: This book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart, but you will never forget it. How could I resist that?

I fell in love with crazy old Holden Caulfield on the first page."If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

 Having recently turned fourteen, I identified with his disenchantment with school, parents, peers and life in general. Catcher in the Rye is the first novel I read more than once, the first novel that made me laugh and cry sometimes simultaneously, such as a scene in Chapter 25, when Holden takes his little sister Phoebe to the park and tries erase all  the graffiti. He resigns himself to, "That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact."

As a toddler  before I could read the words myself, I tortured my parents  to read it again!  and in elementary school I repeatedly recited lines from The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. What kid didn't?  But the Catcher in the Rye is the first story I lived within; I was Holden Caufield, even though I was not a seventeen year old boy living in New York City. It didn't matter.  His voice lived inside me, and I became part of the story.

It's been years since I have read the book, but subconsciously I channeled Holden when I wrote my first novel, Parallel Lines. The lead character, Nick Verseau, unintentionally bears a similar voice, so Holden still lives inside me. I'm oldish now, yet perhaps still a rankled teenager at heart.  Maybe someday I will be promoted to tell you all the David Copperfield kind of crap about my life.

This morning I thought about how there are no original stories. All the major themes in life can be placed written on one 3 x 5 card. Yet every  new novel, memoir or book of poems released is original because each of us experiences the universal themes  uniquely. So even though all the stories seem to have already been told, there are still some great tales yet to be written. Write one.

What is YOUR favorite all time book? If you were being evacuated to a new planet and could only take one book, which would it be and why?

Happy Writing.

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