When I was young I was a voracious reader. I read a minimum of one book a week well into my 20s. Sometimes two books a week, despite the fact that I took lots of drugs and drank. These habits aren’t conducive to good retention.
My first wife was a big reader as well, and I remember evenings at home with the two of us plus our small son all sitting in the living room each with our noses in our respective books. With the TV on, of course. My mother always told me I couldn’t absorb what I was reading while watching TV, but I proved to her that I could absorb quite a lot of varied stimulus at the same time.
Years ago I worked in Kew Gardens, Queens and lived on Houston Street in Manhattan. It was quite a haul on the F train everyday and I read a lot.
Unfortunately I was also on methadone and I would fall asleep after a few stops and sometimes the book would fall out of my hands, so it took a while to get through a book, more like a book a month. I bought most of the books I read, mostly new; but when cash was tight I went to the Strand or bought books on the street.
I was on a big Len Deighton and Elmore Leonard kick at the time and needed to pay as little as possible for my books. I was afraid to go to the library on account of the fact that I had a bunch of unreturned books at home. I made sure to teach my kid to return his books on time, though.
I lost the shoe store job in Queens, but got a job on the Upper West Side as a night porter, and I was in used book heaven. Upper West Siders are big readers and they threw out books by the bushel. I only bought must-read books, like the James Elroy books that were just coming out. Had to have them, couldn’t wait. The same with John LeCarré and James Lee Burke. Then I got divorced.
The divorce threw my life into a tizzy, and I started doing other stuff, like going to the gym so I could get in shape and meet another girl. Getting clean. Taking care of my aging dad. Moving. I stopped reading, except for newspapers.
I started doing crosswords, if you read this blog you already know about that.
At work I’d moved up to doorman, and now I only read the paper, but people still gave me books remembering my night porter days. I took them with the hopes of reading them some day.
I met a new woman, my present wife Danusia, and I showed her something I’d written. She encouraged me to write more.
The thing was, going through a divorce and getting clean was very conducive to doing a lot of writing. I wrote down how bad I felt divorcing and how good I felt getting clean. But I discovered something else. I wrote exactly how whomever I was reading at the time wrote. One week I was John Le Carré and the next week I was Elmore Leonard. Danusia encouraged me to take a writing class. The first thing I did was stop reading.
This was difficult in two ways: First, I love to read. Second, I had friends that were writers and they always wanted to know what I thought of their books. I would read just enough to be able to make a comment but not enough to become that person.
Eventually I found my own voice by not reading other people’s books.
During my night shift days I discovered a lot of writers I never would have read, and one of them was Henning Mankell. Of the Kurt Wallander series fame. I loved the Wallender books, and read most of them. A tenant noticed I read them and loaned me a few. She always wanted the books back. She tried to get me to read A Confederacy of Dunces but I didn’t like it. She was less friendly after that.
Sometime last year Danusia brought home a book she’d gotten at Housing Works, it’s called Daniel by Henning Mankell. Danusia said it was a haunting story and I would love it.
I looked at it, and it wasn’t about Wallander, or The Man From Beijing, a Mankell book I bought at a reading and got autographed. I still haven’t cracked that one open 4 years later.
We are cat sitting in Rockaway Park, and it’s a really long haul. Two hours door to door on a good day from our Harlem apartment. I’ve been coming up here to get tools for work and watering the plants.
Last week I looked for a book to read on the train. I had run out of crossword puzzles. I spotted Daniel, and the story of a 19th Century African boy stranded in Sweden didn’t seem like my cup of tea, but at less than 300 pages it wouldn’t be heavy. I put it in my bag.
I’m on page 213 today and I don’t want it to end. It’s one of those books that have taken hold of my heart, a book I can identify with as an outsider.
Molo is a 9-year-old African boy whose parents have been murdered by white men in 1877. He is adopted by a man called Hans Bengler, a 27-year-old Swede who went to Africa to discover a new insect, and comes back with Molo instead. He christens him Daniel. Daniel becomes a stranger in a strange land. Bengler is an outsider in his own right, despite knowing the land.
It is a fascinating, heartbreaking story. Brutal and magical by turns, I cannot put it down. I had to tell the world about it. Read it if you get a chance. It will certainly make your heart and eyes well up.