The Dog Actually Ate My Homework: A Love of Reading
My love of reading began at the age of four on my mother’s knee. It is my mother who taught me to read and write, and I can still recall the look of mutual astonishment on our faces when it was evident that I was not only understanding and repeating but ultimately reading the words of the primary colours illustrated in bright circles in a pre-school reader. We were never so pleased with ourselves and one another than at that moment.
Fast forward to Grade 1, and I still remember a story we read in class about a lonely little fir tree in the forest that always got passed over at Xmas time but was finally chosen one year by a child who understood that small is beautiful too! I have searched for a copy of the book, the title of which still eludes me, but if anyone knows the answer, I’m all ears!
In my grade school years, when I wasn’t reading for school, I would immerse myself in Superman and Classics Illustrated comic books and kid lit. Favourite tales included Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Prince and the Pauper, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, White Fang, The Black Stallion and, last but not least, The Tales of Marco Polo. Other books that made a strong impression of me were The Moonstone, The Good Earth and Cannery Row and anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And I often found myself immersed in a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
At the age of 8, my father returned from a trip visiting relatives in Cape Cod with his usual armfuls of presents, including salt water taffy and a book for me, a hardcover copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
. I was initially dismayed to receive a book with nothing but girls in long skirts and petticoats on the cover, but my mother urged me to give it a whirl, and it paid off. It’s a book I still cherish.
Our school librarian turned me on to reading via the Hardy Boys series. One morning, I plotted a “Ferris Buehler” day off by feigning illness, only so that I could finish the novel I fell asleep reading from the night before. Around the same time, we began reading short stories in French in high school, and at first it was tough slogging, since I found myself circling slews of words I’d need to look up in the dictionary, but the effort paid off in the long run.
I also recall my brother going away to seminary in New York state and returning home in the summers with boxes of paperback novels. I would fish through them and found myself at the age of 12 reading way above my level. By far my favorite tome from this varied collection was Stop Time
, a coming of age story penned by Frank Conroy who, although he only published a couple of novels himself, would go on to encourage other writers in a lifelong association with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
And two of my most cherished Xmas gifts were books gifted to me by my brother, including Leonard Cohen’s book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth
and the seminal collection of Canadian short fiction, From Ink Lake
My first real challenge in writing about what I’d read were high school book reviews. Ever the procrastinator, I stayed up late one Sunday night after a day of downhill skiing writing out (by hand – it was the early '70s) a review of A Tale of Two Cities
. Another time, I was rushing to complete an overdue review of Shane
but the family dog, so frustrated by my devotion to the task and ignoring his pleas for attention, grabbed the paper I’d been working on and chewed it to bits. Yes, it’s true, the dog actually ATE MY HOMEWORK and I had to go back to the drawing board!
All this prepared me well for a love of studies in literature and foreign languages and eventually a degree in translation from Concordia University in Montreal. And it was when I read Isabel Allende in translation, in particular her novel Daughter of Fortune
(culled from a curbside cardboard box) that I learned to appreciate the ultimate goal of translation not just as a transposition of words from one language to another, but as a work of art and original expression in itself. Not surprisingly, one of my idols is Sheila Fischman, translator from French to English of so many French Canadian and Québécois authors, including Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’Occasion
(The Tin Flute
) which I have read in both languages.
Reading has also been key to my discovery of myself as a gay man. In the '70s, St. Martin’s Press in New York City began publishing a slew of gay authors and one of my favourite past times in those days was trawling the shelves of Androgyny Bookstore on Lower Crescent Street in Montreal, which specialized in gay titles and where you could sit down, peruse books, sip a coffee and compare notes (and flirt) with any number of store volunteers. And when I moved to Toronto in 1988, Glad Day Bookstore was a regular destination. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and a combination book launch and screening of a film I attended at the Carleton Cinema about the late Vito Russo, a gay Italian American gay activist from NYC who wrote The Celluloid Closet (also a book and
film about the depiction of gays in Hollywood films over the decades). I got a signed copy of the book from the author who I became Facebook friends with, only to discover that his Facebook page was peopled by a Who’s Who of gay authors from my extensive reading list, which has a bookcase of its own in my home.