Autobiography of Reading

by James Wallace Harris

This is a history of the people who put the ideas in my head. From my best guestimates, I’ve read over 2,000 books. Most were no better than mediocre television, just escapism to occupy my mind. But the best books are ones that shaped my thinking and haunt my memories. I feel challenged to create a chronological autobiography of my reading because everything is beginning to fade away. I’ve learned that working at remembering triggers memories. I’ve also learned that I can create false memories, and memory is very unreliable.

Since I’ve started this project, the goals keep changing, and the scope expanding. This essay will take months to finish. It’s become an experiment in memory while writing and rewriting in public. There is a challenge to remembering fifty-five years of reading putting those memories in order. It wasn’t my goal when I started this project, but I found myself obsessed with understanding how my thoughts evolved over time.

I am what I read.

Like many males of my generation, I’ve been accused of only reading books written by old white guys. While that has been somewhat true, especially while young, it’s not completely true. I want to use this history to remember how my thoughts became diversified. A well-rounded person should read widely from writers who reflect the spectrum of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultures, and nationalities. No one taught me that when I was young. I wish I had been exposed to women writers as a kid so I could have grown up knowing the opposite sex better. I’ve always been clueless when it comes to romance, which disappointed my girlfriends and wife.

Reading diversely takes a conscience effort because there’s a natural tendency to read books from a narrow range of topics, and if that topic lacks diversity, so will the writers you read. Since I was thrilled with NASA starting in 1961 I read science fiction. Back in the 1960s few women appeared interested in science fiction.  Few women wrote science fiction. I’m not sure how many read it. Over my lifetime I’ve seen science fiction become more diverse. I’ve also expanded my interests outside of science fiction which led me to read more kinds of writers. I would love to see women write autobiographies of reading too. Do they start mostly reading women writers? Do young people today automatically read works by all kinds of people? I believe my generation has changed tremendously since 1959 as we’ve expanded our reading horizons. But do kids growing up in the 21st century automatically start knowing what it’s taken us fifty years to learn?

My original idea for this essay was to only show photographs of all the authors I felt influenced me over time, and that would visual show how my reading diversified. But since I’m a wordy bastard I’ve decided to annotate the photographs. One thing writing this essay has recalled is four women had a great influence on my reading: my mother, and my three favorite teachers. They weren’t writers but they got me to reading. Not that I’m blaming them on my lack of diversity, but it does show the role of parents and teachers on reading.

I now wonder if I would have been a different person if I had read different books. Watching sports has always bored me. If the first books I had read had been thrilling sports stories, would I be a sports fan today? If I had read Jane Austen in Jr. High, and other books by young women, could I have been more fulfilling to the women I dated? When I first started taking computer programming classes in 1971 we were taught GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out philosophy. Most of my reading was garbage. How different a person could I have been if I read mostly great books?

1950s

james-norman-hall

Ground zero for fiction for me is High Barbaree, an old movie I saw in the middle of the night with my dad. It was the mid-1950s. Seeing this movie is one of my earliest memories, and I had no idea what television, movies, acting, novels, fiction, stories were at the time. It wasn’t until I saw the film again in the 6th grade that I remembered seeing it the first time. Eventually, I tracked down the novel, and have read about James Norman Hall, and his co-writer Charles Nordhoff. They were famous for writing Mutiny on the Bounty. High Barbaree was mostly Hall, and very autobiographical. This book/movie is very important to me because I actual feel it infected me like a computer virus, and I’ve never been able to remove it from my system.

High Barbaree was about a mystical island in memory. Treasure Island is the second story I can remember. Stories about islands and castaways would resonate with me for the rest of my life.

1960s

The first book I remember, which my mother read to me, was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. That was in 1960 when I was in the third grade. The first book I read on my own, in summer school between the 3rd and 4th was Up Periscope by Robb White. I got more into reading in the fourth grade, but it was nonfiction books about airplanes, submarines, space travel and nature books. Then in the 5th grade, I discovered the Oz books by L. Frank Baum when we lived at Homestead Air Force Base. I loved the base library. That year I also discovered the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys book series. I’m using James Lawrence Duncan for the author of these books, but there were others for the series. I remember sneaking in a few Nancy Drew books, but I was embarrassed to check them out because I thought them books for girls.

madeleine-lengle

In the sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders read us books after lunch. One of them was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. This was 1962/63. I loved this story so much I went to the library, got a copy, and raced through it before Mrs.Saunders finished it for the class. I didn’t realize it was science fiction, or there was a genre of books called science fiction, I just knew I wanted more books like it.

Without knowing the concept of science fiction existed I found books by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Philip Wylie in the 7th grade. I was particularly taken with The Mysterious Island, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide. I became addicted to nearly all my favorite themes at this time.

One of the most influential women in my life was my 8th grade English teacher. Sadly, I’ve forgotten both her name and face. She would raise a student’s grade one letter if they read and reported on five books during the six weeks grading period. I upped my C’s to B’s all year long. That’s how I discover Robert A. Heinlein and his book Red Planet – it was on her approved reading list. During the 1965/66 school year, I discovered the science fiction genre, the big three of Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov, pulp magazines, and the Golden Age of science fiction stories and writers. It was the mid-1960s and I gorged on 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

rachel-carson

During the 8th and 9th grade, 1964-1966 I read a lot of science fiction, especially books geared to young readers. Andre Norton (Mary Alice Norton) might be the first woman science fiction writer who I read many books by, although I might not have known Andre was a woman at the time. And I must admit, I never liked her juvenile books as much as I liked Heinlein’s. But I don’t think that was because she was a woman. Ray Bradbury and Clifford Simak had a nostalgic take on America that was reflected in their science fiction. I liked that.

Mostly I read science fiction back then, but I’ve always read some nonfiction, especially books about science. For some reason, I’ve known about Rachel Carson my whole life, but I never thought I read Silent Spring. Then the other night I was watching an episode of American Experience on PBS about Rachel Carson and I realized I had read The Edge of the Sea back in junior high. That book had an impact on me, and I always remembered it vaguely, even to the point of wanting to move to New England and live near tidewater pools, but I hadn’t remembered it was written by Rachel Carson.

During the 10th and 11th grades (1966-1968) I began discovering younger science fiction writers. The most important, Samuel R. Delany, became my writer that epitomizes 1960s science fiction for me. Next, Philip K. Dick became a lifelong fascination. Writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, John Brunner and J. G. Ballard had writing styles and intellectual ambitions in their stories that were missing from the 1950s science fiction. It seemed like reading these new writers science fiction went from black and white television shows to technicolor movies.

It’s not that I didn’t read science fiction by women in the 1960s, I did. Novels like Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin were books I admired but they didn’t move me. I respected Le Guin a great deal because of how she was discussed in prozines and fanzines, but her stories didn’t affect me emotionally, and that’s how I measured books. Probably for me the two most influential women in science fiction in the 1960s were Judith Merril and Celi Goldsmith. Merril edited an annual best of year anthology which I loved and wrote book reviews I respected. Goldsmith was the editor of Amazing and Fantastic, which often ran stories by authors I did bond with, like Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick.

All the digest magazines would run stories by women. Not that many, but women were there. Plus I read paperbacks by writers like C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Zenna Henderson. I loved Henderson’s sentimental tales, but they didn’t represent my science fiction philosophy. As a teenage boy, my cherished SF concepts were actually narrow in scope. I hate to say that. I didn’t think it then, but I do now. That’s why I loved “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. He was a breakout writer for me. I didn’t know at the time he was black and gay.

It wasn’t until I started reading novels other than science fiction that I began to change. Maybe I was growing up, or maybe the new novels programmed a new me.

Charlotte Travis, my 12th grade English teacher, was my all-time favorite teacher. She got me to broaden my reading interests. I would talk to her after class and she would tell me about a book, and I would go read it to impress her. The two that made the greatest impact were Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and The Stranger by Albert Camus. I also discovered at this time a few science fiction writers like Kurt Vonnegut could be more literary and philosophical than the general genre.

This 12th-grade class was where I began my classical education. The whole class read King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and The Inferno, but Canterbury Tales was one of my suck up to the teacher books. I had a crush on her. She also got me to read Flowers for Algernon, A Catcher in the Rye, and The Bell Jar. Although my memory if flaky on the last one. I could have read it my first year in college. Although I have a faint memory of talking about suicide with Ms. Travis. Besides, I always think of Catcher and Bell Jar as a pair of bookends.

1970s

I started my first year of college was 1969/1970. I believe my first day was the day after Woodstock because I remember everyone talking about it. I had introductions to literature, philosophy and sociology courses where older and wiser teachers worked to blow our little hippie minds. And they did. I had to reread Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and I was first introduced to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Feminine Mystique, books that I’d reread for junior and senior courses. I was also required to read Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead which made a great impression on me at the time, but years later in other classes suffered from attackers. It’s weird when you live long enough to have revelations reevaluated.

But I was reading on my own too, outside of class. Seize the Time by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, and other radical books, as well as novels like Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. This was when I started reading The Rolling Stone magazine.

I attended Miami-Dade Junior College for the 1969-1970 year. My dad died in May of 1970. During the summer I traveled to Memphis and decided to attend Memphis State University. However, I immediately dropped out of the Fall semester. My long hair philosophy did not match the school’s conservative values. I ended up enrolling at State Technical Institute majoring in computer science in 1971.

For an 18-month period between the end of 1970 and into 1972, I read 495 books, mostly science fiction paperbacks. I also joined a science fiction club, started going to science fiction conventions, produced fanzines, and joined two APAs (SAPS and SFPA). I started collecting pulp magazines and read as many books on science fiction and fandom that I could find.

Concurrent with all the science fiction, I became obsessed with reading Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac. I even went on some hitch-hiking adventures. It was during this period that I got into counter-culture writers.

To be continued as I find time to remember and write…