I read every day on the way down the mountain. The hulking old truck went running down the road every day of the season. The steering wheel sloppy, Dad kept the old Ford pointed forward to follow, more or less, the yellow line as it doubled down around turns, weaving as we wound down to the valley where we mowed lawns.
We left every morning when the sun came up, with the day catching in the leaves of the trees at the top and then the light working it’s way to the orchards at the bottom. We left every morning in that green, galumphing Ford and got to the gas station and the start of the day at a little after 8. Dad bought the newspaper, the one for Fresno and one for San Francisco. He got gas if we needed it. Ice for the water for the day. A soda or something to drink. And I sat up from the back seat and put my book down.
The Ford had a big, flat back seat, with enough room to lay down but no place to put your legs if you sat up. So I’d crawl in over the folding front seat and lie there and read while we rumbled and bumped towards the work of the day.
I read Bonhoeffer that way, Orwell and the histories of the American right, the histories of the militia movement and a biography of Johnny Cash. I read the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robert Louis Stevenson, and old Baptist tracts on Christian primitivism. I read Steinbeck that way and conspiracy theory books and I read about Christian Reconstructionism and American history, about the rise of guerrilla war and the things out about Y2K. Once I read a history of the USMC, even though I had no particular interest in the Marines, and my mom asked me what I was preparing for.
It wasn’t a program of personal improvement. I just wanted to know about everything.
There wasn’t really anybody to say what I should read and I didn’t have any sort of list, any set of proscriptions or any descriptions of great books, so I just read what there was to read. I read what seemed interesting and always followed the surprise of subjects, the sudden sight of titles and just read. I just read. I liked reading, and I wanted to read everything.
Guys used to get defensive when I’d read at lunch, working labor jobs. Wiry little tree climbers would say, “Jee-zuss. I know I’m not a professional conversationalist or anything, but no one’s ever said I’m this boring.” Beefy guys with big burl shoulders would say, “So what, are you going to be the President someday?”
But I always read anyway. I read John Locke’s first and second treatise while working at Taco Bell. I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses while working Wal-Mart’s night shift. I read Derrida and Elliot Perlman at the gas station. I read before dinner, before bed and in the minutes between things. I read while water boiled, while the shower water got hot, and while waiting for people.
I didn’t read because I was supposed to read. I didn’t read what I was supposed to read. I didn’t read because the library posters showed books exploding into rocket ships and castles. I just read because books surprised me. Because the world is big and weird, because it’s always complicated and crammed with things I didn’t know, I read every random thing I could.
The other day I read physicists have proposed a solution to a problem I didn’t know existed, and that thrilled me. I read that during World War I, one of England’s richest men abandoned the House of Lords for an apocalyptic cult. I wanted to know more. I read how Dick Cheney used back channels to build an imperial presidency, and I wanted to know more about the history of that idea.
I guess, some people read to escape the world. Some people read to be better. Some people read for meditation and some for tests and some for education. Every time I open a book, though, I’m reading because the world is weird, big and wild and weird, and always interesting.
Books I read in 2008:
1. Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
2. Killing Johnny Fry, by Walter Mosley
3. The Narrows, by Michael Connelly
4. The New Kings of Nonfiction, ed. by Ira Glass
5. Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
6. The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley
7. Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard
8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
9. Once Upon a Distant War, by William Prochnau
10. Chuck Klosterman IV, by Chuck Klosterman
11. Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut
12. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Letham
13. Rope Burns, by F.X. Toole
14. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe
15. How the Good Guys Finally Won, by Jimmy Breslin
16. The Ticket Out, by Helen Knode
17. The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie
18. Children of Men, by P.D. James
19. Swag, by Elmore Lenoard
20. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
21. Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy
22. White Jazz, by James Ellroy
23. Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile
24. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, ed. by Malcolm Cowley
25. Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay
26. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion
27. Mystic River, by Denis Lehane
28. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
29. The Wrecking Crew, by Thomas Frank
30. The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard
31. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
32. Their Eyes were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
33. A Red Death, by Walter Mosley
34. Violence, by Slovoj Zizek
35. Obscene in the Extreme, by Rick Wartzman
36. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen
37. Bless your Dirty Heart, by Holy Hubert Lindsey
38. Stranger than Fiction, by Chuck Palahniuk
39. The Vonnegut Statement, ed. by Jerome Klikowitz & John Somer
40. The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald
41. Mr. Paradise, by Elmore Leonard
42. Angler, by Barton Gellman
43. Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard