Sherman Alexie is a Native American Indian. He’s also a writer. My NA roots have given me an almost non-existent nose, high cheekbones, and a convenient dearth of body hair. Other than that, I don’t relate to his marginalized experience, except that it gripped me and made me fall in love with reading and writing all over again. Sometimes you read something so profoundly affecting, you want to grab your bull horn. Not having a cosmic bull horn, I satisfied myself by assigning it to my 5000 Words class.
In response to Alexie’s short story “Superman and Me,” I had my students write about their own reading journeys. I have to tell you, no aspect of the 5000 Words Class has been more enjoyable than these fine essays. They were a sort of education and a balm and an affirmation– all in one. There were recurring themes. When reading is made to be a warm, peaceful, safe, and lovely prospect, those feelings stick to us years later. Reading opens doors. Alexie explored that image brilliantly. So did my students.
My own story is similar to the ones I read. I was not an early reader. In fact I was in Title I, translated “not-getting-it.” We got to sit in a small semi-circle with an aide and get extra reading help while the other kids moved on? Read books? I don’t know. I remember my dad, my hero, reading Dick and Jane books with me, and I remember hating them with a white-hot hatred. They were so dumb. I basically languished in school until sixth grade when Mr. Stoisits devoted a portion of each week to “pleasure reading.” He’d stocked his room full of actually, no kidding, honest-to-goodness exciting books of every genre, and he let us choose.
It was the first time I enjoyed a book. I went through a door. And once I knew that door existed, I kept coming back. Sometimes the door was locked. Some books didn’t thrill me at first. Some, ok many confused me, but I wanted to rekindle that same delight of my first book-loving experience, so I kept at it. Eventually I met a book series I adored so much that I did not want it to end, ever. The words The end felt like a death. How could this author evoke such thick and horrible and wonderful and terrible emotion? How could words be more important than sleep?
I wrote a promise to myself. I vowed I would one day make people love characters the way I loved these. I remember writing it out like I was contracting with God. I may have written it on the inside cover. The book is lost, but my promise is not.
For his people, Sherman Alexie considers books as more than doors. They are life rafts and ramparts and square meals. They are the solution to everything. In a way I agree with him. The very best book, the Bible carried me to peace. Books are a way into minds we wouldn’t dare plumb, a way into minds we could care less about, but ought to. They are the only ancient boundary line of the human experience.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one. – George R.R. Martin