Reading: A Love Story
By Joseph Longo
I did not come from a family of readers.
My parents were Sicilian immigrants. My mother read an occasional magazine, but she never read a complete book. My father was semiliterate. Though he bought the New York Daily News every day – mainly to see what horses won at the track.
My first reading memory was comic books. I collected them and had a towering stack in my closet. My hero was Superman. I read that many gay boys growing up in the fifties considered him their favorite because he lived two lives. I also liked True Crime and Classic Comics. As a teenager, I worked for an Italian grocer and spent all my money on comics. I waited each month for my favorites to come out. I still read comics, but now they’re called graphic novels.
My Aunt Josie was the only one in my family who was a reader. She is ninety and she still reads, mostly romance novels. In fact, she keeps a notebook of the books she’s read so that she doesn’t buy the same book again. Anyway, she introduced me to my first novel: Gone with the Wind. Her copy was dog-eared and world weary. She read it, and then sent it to her husband who was in Europe during WWII, and he had passed it around to his buddies and then brought it home. I read it years after his return.
The first book I fell in love with was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I couldn’t put it down. Growing up my family lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. It was impossible to have privacy so I spent a lot of time reading in the bathroom. That drove my mother bonkers. She said that I would go blind. I assumed she meant because I was reading too much. Anyway, that book was a revelation to me. The characters were real, and I could identify with them. The novel is about brothers, and because I had a brother with whom I was always at odds, it struck a personal cord. My brother was a baseball fanatic, and I was not. I preferred to read and not sit in front of the TV all day watching baseball. He thought reading was a sissy thing to do.
One night our apartment caught fire while we were asleep. My father rushed us into the street. The next day when we went back to look at the damage, my copy of East of Eden was blackened, water-soaked and unreadable. This devastated me. It was as if I had lost my best friend.
I found our local library. It was a hole in the wall that you could easily miss. I was awed by the place: all those shelves of books, but where to start? The soft-spoken librarian made some suggestions. Start with Robert Lewis Stevenson and Mark Twain, she said. I was dazzled by Treasure Island, wanted to be Jim Hawkins and stow away on a pirate ship. I also loved Tom Sawyer. He was so American. His Aunt Polly and all the characters he encountered seemed to have come from generations of Americans. I was a first-generation American, and all the older people I knew mostly had foreign accents, and did not come from America.
My mother liked that I read and would tell her friends I always had my nose in a book. But on another level she didn’t like it. I don’t think she thought it was a masculine thing. Also, her aunt had told her if I read too much she would lose me. In a way, she was right. My mother did lose me because of books. Books showed me a world outside of my Bronx neighborhood. They gave me the yen to travel; they fed my wanderlust – my need to get far away from the world I grew up in. When I left home at 18, my mother said I was leaving her because I read books.
I found Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and used that as my inspiration to go across country. I read Henry Miller and had one of his books seized when I entered England because Miller was banned in Britain.
When I went to college in the 1970s, my love for reading continued. I majored in English and went to a progressive college in Boston. Most of the professors had been 1960s Harvard radicals and looked as if they rolled out of bed just before they came to class. Lee Grove was different. He was also Harvard educated, but he dressed as if he stepped out of GQ. He wore designer suits, crisp shirts and natty ties. His shoes sparkled. He taught a course that was antithetical to how he looked. It was called The Detective in American Fiction. The course was a revelation to me. He was seriously discussing a genre of fiction that I loved but was considered by most to be second-rate. He introduced me to Raymond Chandler and Dasheill Hammett, and I fell in love with them. I still go back and read them with renewed fascination. In fact, almost every semester I include a Chandler or Hammett novel in one of my courses. Lee was a great teacher who loved novels. He once invited students to his house in Cambridge. It was nicely furnished but there were books everywhere, stacks of them.
Getting back to East of Eden, I reread the book about five years ago, and was again enthralled. I decided to use it in one of my courses. It is a big book and some students of the visual generation are resistant to reading in general, and big books in particular. There were the usual groans when I assigned the book. However, the students loved it. They came to class eager to discuss it. That was a satisfying revelation to me. I was doing my small part to introduce a younger generation to a great book, and thereby encouraging them, hopefully, to be readers.
As I get older, reading has become a more important part of my life. The old cliché holds true: there is nothing more comforting and relaxing than curling up with a good book. It takes me away from my problems, from my aches and pains, from the stresses of life. I like to ease my way into the day reading in bed while sipping tea from my favorite cup, and end the day ensconced in the warmth of my home with my three kitties and my life partner, Bob, contently settled nearby.
Joseph Longo Bio:
I was born in New York City in the borough of the Bronx. When I reached 18 I travelled extensively through the United States and Europe. When I stopped travelling, I worked in the film industry for a number of years, and then in my late twenties, I tired of the freelance film industry lifestyle, settled in Boston and went to college. I received a BA in English and Education. Then I received an MA in mass communications.
As a graduate student I started to teach English on the college level, and after graduating I continued to teach but also returned to the film industry, where I worked mainly as a scriptwriter for training and educational media: films, video, slide shows, DVDs and audio presentations. I currently live in LA with my partner of 16 years and our three cats. I continue to maintain two careers, writing and teaching, and currently teach on-line English courses for Santa Monica College. My partner and I love to travel, and we are avid hikers.
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