November 05, 2007

The View from Darien

Dear Friends:

This by way of a change of pace...My German publisher wrote to say that he is going to be editing a book of short contributions by writers, journalists, and actors, on the subject of the first book they ever read, and how it changed their lives. Below, my contribution. Enjoy!

I suppose everybody has a shortlist of books that changed their lives. My own amounts to about 7 or 8 books, I would guess. But there is one that deserves a special place of honor, because it was my first, which I read at age 3: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. I was reading it with my mother, and we came across a word I didn’t know: eddy. As it turned out, my mother didn’t know it either (or so she said), so we looked it up in the dictionary. "Whirlpool," was the definition. But the fascinating thing that I took away from Defoe’s tale was that one could explore whole new worlds, worlds that were strange and unknown, and that it was not only safe to do so, but even fascinating. Furthermore, there were guides along the way to help you, such as dictionaries. And finally, I had it imprinted on my tender little brain that reading itself was exciting; that it was the key to a larger world.

That sense of revelation stayed with me, and shaped my life. I particularly remember revelations about revelation itself, such as the story of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," from The Arabian Nights, which I read at age 13. Ali Baba comes to the covered entrance to a cave, and learns the magic words that open the door: "Open Sesame!" Or, in college now, reading John Keats’ poem, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," which concludes with the lines:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

It is now six decades since I first read Robinson Crusoe, and I am still looking out at the world with a wild surmise.