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Reading now and then

Monday 11/7/23

It has been difficult for me to read the blow-by-blow account of Nick Drake's final days leading up to his suicide--all of the last two years of his life, really. Learning that the last thing he chose to listen to was Bach, for example. But everything. Got through the end of it yesterday.

Sent my nephew that copy of The Secret of Terror Castle, the first entry in the Three Investigators YA mystery series, that I had bought him for his birthday, via Abebooks. Not the original cover, but a cool one--didn't want it to have any of those tacky jobs that you see with some of the later editions. There were a bunch of editions, but I don't think the book--maybe any of the books in the series--are in print right now. I believe it's been a while. You kind of have to be in the know to know about them.

The Secret of Terror Castle is from 1964, written by Robert Arthur, series creator who authored the first wave of the books. You don't have to read them in order, of course. I didn't start with this one. My nephew is in fourth grade and that's when I started reading the series, which is the kind of thing I have to put a disclaimer on, or else someone invariably says, "But that was you, you're different, someone else can't blah blah blah like you blah blah blah" etc.

I began reading them when I did because I didn't know about them before that. I read a lot that year. All of Jack London's fiction, many baseball history books and biographies. Read Ted Williams' My Turn at Bat for the first time and loved it. Read Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times. Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. I read Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (Farmer Boy was my favorite, and I didn't expect to like it before I started it), a book about Bobby Orr, "The Cask of Amontillado," Johnny Tremain. Good stuff.

The way I discovered the Three Investigators was that I was done before everyone else with whatever little writing assignment we were doing, and the teacher did what she usually did and told me to go get a book to read. It's remarkable how much I discovered and read during these years by getting my work done early. I had fallen hard for vintage Peanuts strips the year before, for instance. Their wise melancholia. But it wasn't downbeat, you know?

Anyway, I had recently read a book in this same class about a boy who was stung by a bee and who died because he was allergic. I was allergic, too. I had to get these shots all the time, because when I got stung, my eyes would swell up, and my throat could as well--that's how the boy in the book died. I used to wonder what would happen if I got stung again. It'd been a long time.

Then two or three years ago I got stung in downtown Salem of all places on a trip to the Peabody Essex Museum. I went to CVS and got some Benadryl just in case, but nothing had happened and I don't think anything would have. I must have outgrown the allergy. And/or the shots did their thing.

The first book I read in the series was The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle, by William Arden. He's a little stiffer in his writing than Arthur was. There's a lot of, "Listen, fellows!" in the conversations between Jupe, Pete, and Bob. M.V. Carey was probably the best writer for the series. She was really good. I have a big essay about the books in You're Up, You're Down, You're Up: Essays on Art in Life and Life in Art. There's art to these YA books. That's how this book of mine works. Someone might be like, "That can't be art," but, yeah, it is. And there's art in life, too. It's not so much about it not being there--it can be about being able to see it. Not missing it. Not missing out. There's art in stair running, for example.

Had I a checklist and all of the books at my disposal when I was in fourth grade, I probably would have read the first one first. The teacher hadn't just waved me in the direction of the three or four shelves of books in the classroom. This was in Mansfield at the Robinson School, which was a kilometer--I remember a teacher saying that in first grade--from Park Row, where I'd gone before, and where I really started working hard on writing, and was consciously focused on writing stories. That's when I committed to taking it seriously--third grade. Or that's when I knew it was time for me to start doing so.

My nephew likes books, but he had struggled some with his reading during COVID. I think that hurt his confidence a little. With reading, I mean. I was trying to give him something he might get hooked on and could be a spur to more reading and feeling confident and excited to read. I love these books so much. I don't love them less now. I might love them more. They taught me about writing. That you have to want to be there with the characters. In addition to the story--that being there is important.


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