From Sweathog To Reader, or How Ice-Nine Saved Me

In a public high school in the Midwest, mid-1970s:

Something I had said, done, written, or scored on an aptitude test got me slotted into advanced-placement English class. I don’t recall having any say in the assignment. Regardless, it wasn’t working; for me. Henry James? Steinbeck, Faulkner, the Brontë sisters, Fitzgerald? I didn’t get them. I didn’t like them. I couldn’t write about them or discuss them with any kind of insight. In a classroom that seemed full of Dead Poets Society members, I felt like a Sweathog.

Was I stupider than people had thought? Was something else wrong? Or was it just that I was 16 and coming unmoored? I couldn’t care less. I figured if Faulkner and Fitzgerald represented the best literature had to offer, I would pass, thank you.

Looking back now, I see I was slowly checking out. I might have verged on giving up on studies, certainly English studies, and—who knows?—maybe failing at everything else. Perhaps I was just another bored, long-haired, heavy-metal head-banger content only to rebel, and damn the consequences. I saw it happen to lots of other kids. We all saw it, if we were paying any attention.

I now identify a moment as pivotal in my life. The twist began in the high school library.

My English teacher, Mr. Farnan—he of the beatnik beard, irreverent humor, and Saab car—might have seen all of that going on within me. He saw something. He saw that Faulkner and Fitzgerald were not speaking to me. He saw that someone ought to. He took a chance. He took me to the school library. He pulled a book off the shelf.“Here,” he said. “Give me a book report on this.”

He handed me Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut.

I’d never read anything like it. Vonnegut spoke to me. I followed up with Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and others. It took an iconoclast from his own Midwestern city to show me stories could communicate not just plots but ideas. They exposed me, if not to answers about life, then at least to some interesting questions.

Little epiphanies, right? I’d say, “Oh!” I’d bring my fingertips to my mouth. My eyes would look up and focus on a point a million miles away, seeing something new in the universe. I’d grow. I’d feel good about it.

That’s what all great writers can do, right? Faulkner and Fitzgerald can do that for countless readers (just not for me.)

I moved on to John Barth, Ken Kesey, and Richard Brautigan. That got me to college, where I found, among others, Thomas Pynchon and E.L. Doctorow, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka. From there, it was on to John Updike, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion.

It was Vonnegut who unlocked the universe of words for me.

For other readers, surely, it’s Toni Morrison, or Gabriel García Márquez, or J.D. Salinger, or Aldous Huxley, or Margaret Atwood, or Ray Bradbury, or Maya Angelou, or Cormac McCarthy, or Harper Lee, or Jack Kerouac, or Sandra Cisneros, or J.K. Rowling, or Oscar Wilde, or Edmund White.

Or Who Knows?

I am a writer now. As such, and as a caring Floridian, I am deeply committed to promoting literacy.

So is the Florida Writers Foundation.

This wonderful organization has done so much through its activities and grants. There is so much more to do. So much more to come.

There are two parts to promoting literacy, and two parts to the FWF’s mission. First is helping people—children and adults—develop skills to read and write.

But there also is that other part.

People must want to write and read, to love it, to do it, or those skills are worthless. To love it, people must encounter writers who speak to them. Through such exposure, readers realize how clear, thoughtful communication can help people know one another, and their world. They grow. They feel good about that.

Yet not every writer gets to every reader. For some readers, it might be a Faulkner; for others, a Vonnegut. For others, it’s Who Knows? I believe we must do all we can to make as many writers as available as possible, always, to all. Because surely one–which one?—is there to inspire the next bored Sweathog, as a student or an adult, to put fingertips to mouth, stare a million miles away, and say, “Oh!”

4 thoughts on “From Sweathog To Reader, or How Ice-Nine Saved Me”

  1. You are SO right. As an avid reader my entire life, I have been shocked to find the variety of books that have moved me. But first you have to learn to love a book, a writer, to suck you in. Thank you for this insight. This is why I detest the idea of banning any book. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not exactly what someone else needs to read.

  2. Marvelous essay about great teachers and the randomness of formative literature. In the 60s when my peers were reading the likes of Salinger, Hesse, Brautigan, Vonnegut and Kerouac, I mysteriously found my way to Baldwin, Wright, Giovanni, LeRoi Jones, Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, Fitzgerald, William F. Buckley, C.S. Lewis, Fanon, Ross Lockridge Jr. (“Raintree County”) and Jim Brosnan, journeyman relief pitcher and author of the book books ever written about baseball.

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