On The Topic Of Books
I have been reading a lot lately. That, coupled with following writers on the Twitter, have me thinking about how I developed a real appreciation for print.
I was raised by a mother, who was an avid reader, and a father who thought reading is what one did while dropping a deuce...and only then because mom wouldn’t let him install a TV in the bathroom.
Growing up in rural Missouri, sitting on a couch as a kid was boring. I was always on my bicycle terrorizing the neighborhood, or off playing some sport.
As I got older, curling up on the couch with a book was tantamount to desertion, as there was no shortage of chores to be done.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I was somehow being kept, through obligations, away from the stories I loved. I was absolutely not! I never once pined away for the next chapter of anything while I was on the tractor or bucking hay.
Books were not important to me. Stories were what old people told. And reading...well...hang on. We will get there.
I, like most people of my generation, am going to lay the blame for my ignorance of the amazingness of books on my parents. Not only because that is what we GenX types do, but because there were no books in the house of interest. Mom, God love her, had the only books under our roof, but she read those trashy romance novels.
(It was always some shit like…Sheltered, but determined, Rebecca leaves the family Ranch in the wide open spaces of Wyoming for California during the gold rush to find her brother. But what she actually finds is solace and passion in the arms of Jesse. But, Jesse has a past. And Rebecca is not ready for Jesse’s past finding her….)
I’m not going to read that shit! How the fuck, where the fuck, and why the fuck!?! Hell no.
So, in my young mind, reading was something that was done in the bathroom, done by chicks, or done at school.
In short, it was to be avoided.
Fast forward to my senior year in high school. I needed an elective. Just one fucking elective, and honestly my options were shit.
Bible Literature...got enough of that in Catechism.
Semantics...I didn't even know what the fuck that was.
International Relations...sounds like a lot of work.
And World Novels
Not great choices for a guy whose primary goal in life was to fuck the First Chair Flutist. (not an exaggeration)
So I polled a couple of buddies and we decided that World Novels seemed like the least offensive option. The choice was made, class registered for, not another thought given to the subject.
Fifth period came, second day of school. Found the classroom on the third floor of the old side of the high school. The classroom was one of those old, dusty, hardwood floored, high-ceilinged, rooms. It was decorated in typical old classroom style. Sparse walls, hanging fluorescent lighting, green chalkboard, and the old-style box type intercom hanging near the ceiling. The desks were that old rough-hewn wood, right-handed school desk. The half-desk style that made significant problems for us unfortunate lefties.
But what was covering the intercom box should have tipped me off that I was in for something different than the usual humdrum literature class.
An 8x10 lithograph of Joseph Stalin.
Got settled near the back corner, right next to Gene. Gene was a drummer in a fledgling rock band. He had long hair and wore Megadeath shirts exclusively. In other words, Gene was cool.
Other side of me was Ray. Ray had a mullet. One of those savage curly mullets. Began every sentence with “Dude.” In other words, Ray was a douche.
Mr. Luther came sauntering in just as the bell rang. He was in appropriately faded jeans for the time, a button-down shirt, a grey sweater vest and a pair of the dirtiest Chuck Taylor’s I have ever seen.
He paused by his desk. Divested himself of his worn leather satchel and Pepsi can, reached into the open desk drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper and began reading, in his rich baritone, a list of books.
I am not going to pretend that I can list even a tenth of the books he spewed out in that rolling style he owned, but I do distinctly remember hearing:
Emma, Oliver Twist, and Great Gatsby.
Panic. Immediate cold sweat. I am fucked. Well and truly fucked. There is no way I can be expected to read Dickens! And Emma!! What the fuck!?! I chase vagina, I don’t have one!
And then he did something I will never forget. He reached on to his desk, grabbed a long piece of scotch tape.
”This,” he said, “is the list of books I am supposed to have you read this semester.”
(wrapping the paper around the can roughly he continued)
“The problem with that is I have read all of these books and they are crap!” (the tape going around the paper now)
“So, I have decided to not do what I have been told I must do...instead, I am going to…”
(moving to the window now)
“Toss this paper out on the lawn…”
(which he did, through the open window)
“And we will vote on which books we would like to read.”
Relief, shock, and immediate respect for this “damn the torpedoes” teacher.
Thunderous applause, lots of smiles among the student body, and a triumphant Mr. Luther posing like Captain Morgan (complete with hands on hips and foot on the squat gray steel trash can.)
Then the selection process began. He started us out with a list of books he thought would be interesting for us.
Again, I cannot tell you everything on that list. But, I can remember exactly what we chose to read.
Lord of the Flies
What came next was also a surprise. Mr. Luther, who had become the only teacher I admired in about 10 minutes, explained the rules of his class and the method upon which we would be graded.
The rules were simple. Be a good citizen. Do the work. Don’t skip.
The homework/testing explanation was similarly simple. Read the assigned pages. Present oral recount of the assignment. Give opinion, with evidence, about the writing style, the plot, and the flow of the story.
Now here is the kicker. He walked to the exact middle of the head of the class, leaned back on his desk, and said, “Nothing is off-limits. No words out of bounds. In my class, if the opinion is honest and the speech is passionate, sometimes expletives will slip out, so to speak. When it comes time to do the oral presentations, the door will be shut and whatever is said, if said in honest opinion and with evidence to back the claim, will be not only allowed, but encouraged. Does everyone agree?”
Emphatic Yeses filled the musty air.
What occurred in that classroom, over the ensuing four months, was nothing short of life changing for me. Some of those books that we read, I found I really enjoyed. Some of them, I despised with every fiber of my being.
Wuthering Heights is a book that if I could go back in time I would kill the Bronte sisters before they could have ever put pen-to-paper.
Lord of the Flies, however, was so good that I was actually disappointed when I finished it.
And every step of the way, Mister Luther asked thought-provoking questions and encouraged us to give honest opinions no matter how vicious and profane they were.
But, the man did not simply impart a dose of appreciation for Classic Literature. He didn’t just offer a breath of fresh air into what had been a very cookie-cutter public school education. What he did was show me, and I am positive I am not the only one, that books were not filled with words. They were instead filled with places, and people, and things that don’t exist. They are stuffed with the impossible, the political, and the fantastic. He showed me how to read and see.
Since that time I have read thousands of books. All of which I took something from. Books have been my only constant. My companion through some really hard times and some really good times. Books, were my sole form of therapy and entertainment when I could not afford electricity. Books were my escape when I was homeless. Reading books together helped me woo and keep my wife.
The method and manner of reading has taken several forms over the years. Used paperbacks from the Book Barn bought with change I scraped off of my car floorboard. eBooks on my Nook, and now Kindle Paperwhite. Even audiobooks from Audible.
But they have always been right in my pocket.
They have taught me, entertained me, made me laugh, and even tugged on a heart-string or two. (never cry though because I am not a pussy)
I have never been back to visit Mr. Luther. Oh, I know where he lives and works. I am sure I could even find his phone number if I looked hard enough. But, I don’t call. What the hell would I say other than “thank you.” Not sure if he would even remember me.
…….Hmmmm….Reading this over before I post. Ended up not being about books at all. This narrative instead became the story of a brilliant teacher and how he changed my life.
Thank you Mr. Luther. You da man.