When I was in first grade, six years old, one day, after much preparation, we went to the library. The whole class lined up, and we marched single-file down the hall and into (ominous music) The Library. I wasn’t particularly impressed. Big room, lots of books. Meh. We didn’t even have access to the whole room, we had just two rows of close-to-the-floor shelving. We were little kids, after all, and being adorable does not give one license to run amok in the stacks.
We’re told to pick out a book we’d like to read, so I go to one end and start flipping books along the shelf, looking at the covers. Berenstain Bears, no, Dr. Seuss, no, Sam and — oh, what’s this? Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman. My middle name is Sam. It’s a book about someone like me!
I sat down to have a closer look. So it turns out that Sam is an owl, and he’s out one night just looking for some fun, and he runs into a firefly named Gus. Sam is intrigued by the possibilities of a lightbulb that can fly, and he teaches Gus how to use his special firefly powers to write words in the air! And they’re having a grand time, flying around and putting neon graffiti all over the night sky, but then things turn bad, and Gus starts causing trouble with his newfound skill and Sam tries to stop him, but Gus has gone right over to the Dark Side, and then things get even worse and there’s a car stuck on the tracks and there’s a train coming and — and then — then I slowly became aware that someone was calling my name.
I blinked. I looked down. I realized I was reading a book. I looked up — and my entire class was lined up single-file, ready to march back down the hall to homeroom, and they were all waiting for, and staring at, me.
The teacher was smiling. “Would you like to check that out?”
I could only nod. I was stunned. What just happened? Something happened. I was in the Library, but I wasn’t in the Library. For a while there, I was in the book. It was like dreaming someone else’s dream. There was some sort of magic involved here.
I couldn’t wait to get home to finish reading. It all turns out okay, Gus the Firefly is presented with an opportunity to use his talents for good; he saves the day; and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility. I think he matures as a result of the experience. He and Sam remain friends, and the angry townspeople welcome them back as heroes. I read it again, and it was just as moving and powerful.
Then I read it again. And again, and again, and so many times until I wore it out. It didn’t work any more. The magic was gone. I think I probably had it memorized by then. I needed a new book.
That’s how the addiction starts, with little short books. That’s how they get you. And it went fast, as addictions do. Before long, I didn’t need pictures anymore, I was mainlining text. Soon I’m spending all my time hanging out at the library, looking for that next fix. Whispered conversations in the stacks about which writers had the good stuff. Friends call me up, “Wanna shoot some hoops?” I’m busy. “What’re you doing?” I’m picking grapes in California. ” O-kaay….”
I wasn’t here in this room, I was in the room in the book. I was in another time, another place, another country. When I discovered Science Fiction, I wasn’t even on this planet anymore! To which my friends would no doubt testify.
I discovered that some authors were better at the magic than others. I discovered that a book that was magic for you might be muggles for me. And I discovered that now and then, you get ripped off. I don’t remember the book, but the writing was good, I was pulled into the story and enjoying it, the characters were in a terrible fix — and then the writer just wrapped everything up with a Deus-Ex-Machina ending that was, to say the least, unsatisfying. I wanted to throw it out the window — no, defenestration was too good for it, it needed to be incinerated, so it could not inflict more suffering. It was a library book, so I didn’t do that.
But I wanted to. I was livid. Someone had wasted my time, and for some reason, I didn’t blame the author — I blamed the publisher, who knew it was a crummy ending and published it anyway. The next time someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be THE person who decided which books were good enough to print. Still chasing that dream….
You know what I’m talking about, because you love to read too. It’s the power of little black marks on a piece of paper, they can make you laugh, they can make you cry, they can make you search your soul. It’s a little like watching a movie, except you’re not watching the show, you’re in the show. Somehow, strangely, it’s more real. A good book makes you feel like you were there, like you have memories of that experience.
I like books as a source of information too, but it’s the power of a narrative to take me away that really gets me to love a book. The Magic of Reading. It’s corny, but it’s real, and I almost get a chill when I think it might not have happened. Another book might not have grabbed me the way Sam and the Firefly did. I might be one of those people who say “A book? Oh, don’t they have a movie for it?”
I might have missed all that magic.
Thank you, P.D. Eastman.