Saturday, September 06, 2008

Transformative Reading Experience

My room was the coldest one in the house, exposed to east winds as the house clung to the lip of a valley in rainy rainy Oregon. It was winter, and it was a couple years before my parents bought the space heater that would warm the room into the high 50s.

So of course I was huddled under blankets, lying beneath the gold light of a lamp that took up most of the bedside table my dad had painted when we moved into the house ten years before.

I had just become friends with Debby, a junior and a year ahead of me, who took me to the biggest bookstore I’d ever seen—Powell’s, downtown. Powell’s takes up an entire city block. Then (as now) it was a haven of used books—the prices discreetly penciled into the upper left hand corner of the first page. It was many years before barcodes and computer searches. You found things alphabetically by section, and by serendipity. In my case I found Scott Fitzgerald because Debby took me there. Her father brought her to Powell’s every birthday and bought her a stack; she’d been reading Fitzgerald for a while now.

Me, it was my first time, and so I chose the first novel, This Side of Paradise.

Back home under the blankets, a whole world opened up to me. Amory Blaine is arrogant and explicitly self-making. He goes to Princeton, invents himself, imagines a type and grows to fit it. Fitzgerald makes it clear that beneath the posing and the slick lines with fast girls beats a heart and a moral conscience, even if Amory doesn’t always heed them. It’s the classic promise attractive men make to girls—if you get to know me better, you’ll see the vulnerability beneath the wicked smile.

It worked on me as it had worked on all of America back in 1920, when this novel became an overnight sensation, ushered in the Jazz Age, and catapulted Fitzgerald and his pretty wife Zelda to a precipitous and demanding fame from which they’d never recover.

Before I read Fitzgerald, I didn’t really think I’d go to college. I didn’t see the point. My mother had never gone, my dad had dropped out. I didn’t see how it could do anything for me.

But when it dawned on me that there were colleges far away from Boring, Oregon (really the name of my town), places where people made themselves up and then launched themselves into the big world, suddenly I got interested.

I stopped reading during math (too late, really, to make much difference—I’d missed years of instruction), but at least I started making grades.

I decided there and then, before I finished This Side of Paradise, that I was going to go “back east” for college. Which I did.

And although I did eventually come west again, for a doctoral program at UC Berkeley and then a teaching job at USC, that collegiate experience “back east” is what made me. It fulfilled a promise Scott Fitzgerald whispered to me beneath the blankets.

1 comment:

Gareth said...

I have always been intrigued with the ability of little acts or experiences to alter the course of people's lives so drastically. The ability of the author to get you to so drastically change your life goals in 400 pages says a lot about the author's ability to connect with people and gives a clue as to the reason why his books were such a success.