Friday, January 21, 2011

The First Book I Ever Read

Most books come and go.  You look on your shelf for a novel, only to remember that, whoops, it's gone, you gave it away back in 2004.  There are some books, though, that you will always keep.  Here are a few of mine.

1. The Billion Dollar Ransom, by Franklin W. Dixon

This is the first book I ever read.  I read The Billion Dollar Ransom, #73 in the Hardy Boys series, in 1982, when I was five years old.  I remember nothing about the story, other than the fact that it took place in a theatre.  Do I really remember this, or is it just because the boys are clearly in a theatre on the cover of this book?  And look!  A ghost!  I really should re-read this one--it looks pretty good.

I read a lot of Hardy Boys books when I was very young, and then moved on to James Bond novels when I was in second and third grade.  Around that time, I started pestering my mother to buy me novelizations of current movies.  These books were on the racks at the grocery store, for $2.95 apiece, and I usually got the ones I wanted.  First came the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is unfortunately lost to the ages, and then I hit paydirt with The Goonies.

2. The Goonies, by James Kahn

Whoa.  This book was pretty mature.  In addition to violence and profanity, it contained graphic depictions of French-kissing!  This was all shocking stuff for a nine year old reading in the hallway outside of homeroom.  There were racier scenes in The Spy Who Loved Me and Thunderball, but I could never quite figure out what was going on in those books.  This I understood.

Over the next year, from the spring of third grade through my move from Orlando to Memphis and into fourth grade in a new school, I read The Goonies fourteen times.  I would read the book to the end, then turn back to the front and start again.  I read the book until the cover came off.

Part of the reason for my obsession with a dime-store novelization of a movie I hadn't even seen was that I was a solitary kid who read in the morning, at lunch, during recess, and at home in the evenings.  Also, I had moved from one city to another and had no real friends outside of my brothers.  Finally, my introduction to The Goonies coincided with my painful introduction to orthodontistry.  My underbite was so severe that the doctors had to give  me braces, rubberbands, and headgear, all while I still had my baby teeth!  So I had lots of time sitting in waiting rooms, reading Goonies and dreading the moment that the sadistic women called to to the chair.

3. A Treasury of Great Poems, ed. by Louis Untermeyer 

I learned more from this single book, A Concise Treasure of Great Poems, edited by Louis Untermeyer, than probably any other book I have ever owned.  I picked it up during my first year at Christian Brothers High School, which was another year of transition and uncertainty that I whiled away locked in my room with my books.  This is just your garden-variety anthology of poetry, one that any college kid picks up for his first literature class,  but it came for me at exactly the right time.  During the winter of 1991-1992, I simply could not get enough of the poems in this book.  For a bookish, lonely teenager, the twist at the end of "Richard Cory" seemed the greatest accomplishment in western art.  "Jabberwocky"?  Are you kidding me?  I thought I had found heaven; I wanted the whole world to be in iambic pentameter.

This book was already 33 years old when I bought it at the Book Depot in Germantown, Tennessee--notice Robert Frost (1875-     )--and soon it was in three or four pieces.  On the last page before the indices, at the bottom of Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill," the former owner, John Steven Pehler, had left this unforgettable message:

I do hereby authorize 
the dropping of a bomb on 
Darlington School and its 
premises in Rome, Ga., U.S.A.
John Pehler,
future leader
of the World

4. Fantastic Four, issue 141

No, I'm not a comic book collector.  This is the only issue of The Fantastic Four that I have ever owned, and I have never actually read it.  I pulled into a comic book store on a whim one day back in 2000 or 2001, after recently re-reading Rick Moody's The Ice Storm.  The book uses this comic book as a literary pretext for the events of the novel, and I thought to myself wouldn't it be cool if I could find a real copy of it, not really believing I could.  But here it is.

Paul Hood buys a copy of this thing as he is leaving New York City on the New Haven Line to take him back to his family in time for Thanksgiving Day, 1973, and he muses about how the dysfunctional family of the Fantastic Four reflects the realities of his own dysfunctional family.  He flips to the last page of the book and feels that "Stan Lee was in some direct communication with the universe." (He's reading it here.) 

And, of course, he is.   The cover says it all.  There is a woman, in shock, cradling the body of a young boy who is unconscious, overcome with a sudden jolt of electricity, a lethal flow of energy in an otherwise frozen world. 

Here are a few paragraph from the last pages of the novel that I am including simply for the joy of typing all the words and pretending they're mine.  Spoilers!

"F***ing family.  Feeble and forlorn and floundering and foolish and frustrating and functional and sad, sad.  F***ing family.  Fiend or foe.  Next month: the end of the Fantastic Four.  The Fab Four.  The Fetishistic Four.  Family was all tricks with mirrors.  Flimflam.  Back through the generations, back forefathers and forefathers and forefathers, it was a mantle he didn't think he could hold up.  All flummery.  Paul Hood, the flame, the torch, burnt out.  Burnt at both ends.  He wished he could forget them, wished he could put this trip behind him, wished he was still eating with a bib, making models of stock cars, four on the floor, wished he was back in the arms of some girl.  Missed Libbets.  On the platform in Stamford.  He wanted to run, to flee fathers, forefathers, forinfication, femmes fatales, and all that stuff.  He wanted to flee friends."

And, as Paul experiences the heartbreaking climax of the novel, this happens:

"And right then there was a sign in the sky.  An actual sign in the sky.  The conversation stopped and there was a sign in the sky and it knotted together everything in that twenty-four hours.  Above the parking lot.  A flaming figure four.  And it wasn't only above the parking lot.  They saw it all over the country, over the Unitarian Church of Stamford, over New Canaan High School, over the Port Chester train station and up and down the New Haven line, over emergency vehicles in Greenwich and Norwalk, over the little office where Wesley Myers was trying to write the next day's sermon, for the first Sunday in Advent.  In halls devoted to public service, in private mansions and dilapidated apartments.  The heavens declared: the flaming figure four."


  1. You must send that inscription to the book inscription project.

    It's great. I've no idea what the first book I read on my own way, but the first words I read were "Run, Spot! Run!" We moved to Florida in October of first grade. My old school had not started reading yet, and they were already on Dick and Jane books three and four in Florida. So I sat alone with the teacher each day during reading group time, the sole member of the lowest reading group in the class.

  2. James:

    What a sad story! I'm trying to picture you being at the bottom of your reading group. I'm guessing that didn't last long.

    I will check out the inscription site. Thanks for reading.

  3. Beautiful! I wish my memory held contents such as this. Books from my childhood should be captured there, not fights with my mother! :)

    The Darlington School still exists. (It's less than 30 miles from my GA home, and for a small prep school, it's quite beautiful.) How sad for Mr. Pehler!

  4. Okay, so I think you need to work this into a coming of age, true-to-life book. Like this guy does: