A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?

Daily Prompt: A Bird, a Plane, You!, Or: This Is Heavy, Doc!

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about power. Specifically, choosing one of three superpowers provided:

  • The ability to speak and understand any language
  • The ability to travel through time
  • The ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, I’ve established that I’m pretty geeky, so of course questions like this are nothing new. The concept of superpowers is ancient; a cursory glance of any major battle in Homer’s epics will reveal quite a bit. When I was a kid, it always came down to Achilles’ Nigh Invulnerability versus Odysseus’ cunning. Cunning isn’t technically a superpower, but being able to outsmart gods is undeniably awesome. But since wisdom and strategy are part of Athena’s domain, she’s probably my first favorite superhero…

Going on a tangent. Sorry.

Anyway, so this debate focuses on the three aforementioned powers. I can dismiss the third one outright, because making two people agree doesn’t exactly solve the inherent issues of a disagreement. The implication of this power is that you use some kind of psychic ability to mess with people’s brains, essentially forcing them to do something. It really boils down to individual morality versus necessity; if you need to mentally force people to agree, then what does that portend for the future of civilization? Look what happened to Rohan in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know about you, but I like having free will and memories. Hey, remember when Zatanna mind-wiped the villainous Dr. Light? Remember when she mind-wiped Batman in an attempt to cover it up? Yeah, that didn’t have any negative consequences whatsoever…oh wait.

I’m sorely tempted to go with the first one, simply because I really enjoy learning languages. I spend a lot of time using free online resources like DuoLingo and Open Culture. If The King of All Cosmos can speak Esperanto, then so can I! What’s cool about speaking any language is that it’s not limited to verbal communication. Taken a step further, universal translation also applies to technology. You ever take a course in C++? BASIC? Congratulations, you know a programming language. How about body language? Music? Symbols? R’lyehian? You might want to save that last one for a special occasion. There’s a lot of opportunities to be had, and being able to communicate is a more civil method of diplomacy than, you know, mind-wiping naysayers.

However, I have to go with time travel. If you have all the time in the world, you can develop universal translation on your own! Yeah, it’s a lot of studying, but at least you won’t have to sacrifice the ability to bend the fabric of reality. You have enough time to do, learn, and create anything you want. The sky isn’t even the limit; develop technology over the centuries and discover interstellar flight! It’s all there for the taking. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. There are a lot of problems associated with time travel, usually due to individual choices and hubris. Remember what happened in Back to the Future? Marty McFly nearly erased himself from existence, and accidentally re-wrote a bunch of other stuff! Or how about The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, who used her powers to avoid problems and drastically altered the fates of everyone around her? Doctor Who is all about why time travel is so ridiculously awesome and dangerous at the same time. Then there are all the questions brought up with multiverse theory, which is even messier. Time travel is the best of these three powers, but it requires unparalleled responsibility and foresight. I don’t think I – or anyone else, for that matter – could use it perfectly.

But I’d sure like to try.