June 18, 2006

Why I Read

Geoffrey PhilpThe red, scowling Devil sitting on a brown rock over a lake of condemned souls where angels from afar hovered while being mocked by a scourge of howling demons frightened me. On those days when I thought my ten year old world was falling apart around me with the noise of my cousins playing under the mango tree and the thought that my father was never coming home again, I would go into my mother’s room, put the stool near the rack in her closet where she hid all her carouchies and find the book, probably written by Ellen G. White or some other Seventh Day Adventist writer, that she had tucked away because she knew the effect that books like that had on my hyperactive imagination. But, I guess, my mother hiding things was part of the game that we played as mother and son. She would hide things and I would find them. It worked the same way with things like her sinfully delicious chocolate fudge that she locked away in the China cabinet. I figured out a way to get to the fudge by learning how to pick locks--thus beginning my criminal career.

But it was always books that held a special place for me because they seemed to hold secrets in plain view. All you had to do was open the covers. The secrets held knowledge and knowledge was power. For if you could remember certain passages, especially from the book of books, that were common enough to be remembered, but obscure enough to defy placement, like Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” and then repeat the passages at the appropriate time, chapter and verse, teachers and the most fearsome looking, dreadlocked Rastaman, would nod-- you would have earned their respect. Books could do that.

So when my mother left her Seventh Day Adventist books behind and began reading the Watchtower and Awake! of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I followed right behind her. Of course, by then I was living a parallel life (in more ways than one) that began with other books I’d been reading at the Tom Redcam library and at Jamaica College.

The library at Jamaica College changed me forever. It was an old fashioned library based on the Dewey Decimal System with the cards in the back flap. The names of all the people who had previously borrowed the books were written on the cards. So, by the time I was sixteen and the librarian at Jamaica College left due to health concerns, I volunteered to take over the running of the library. And they let me. I was a trustworthy young man who went to church every Sunday.

I was in heaven. I got to read all the books before they went on the shelf. I can still remember the smell of a box I opened and right on top was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I took it home and read it over the weekend--eager for more. And there was more. For I could now borrow as many books as I wanted and didn’t have to spend my lunch money buying books down at Sangster’s in Liguanea and facing the old lady who always thought we wanted to read Playboy. Okay, yeah. I was sixteen and horny. All I wanted to do was peek. I couldn’t carry them home or else I know my father would have come back home. But this time with a belt.

I began in the 800 section of Jamaica College’s library and began reading Jane Austen through Eliot and got as far as Trollope (we didn’t have much American literature). I would have gotten further, but I was held up by James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d been following the reading patterns of my teacher, Dennis Scott, a JC alumnus, and borrowing all the books he had read by reading the cards stuck in the back of the book. Years later he would confess that he’s barely read ten pages of Ulysses while I had trudged through the whole thing.

Over the summer between lower and upper sixth form, I can still remember sitting out on the verandah at my home in Mona Heights reading The Myth of Sisyphus while waiting for my friends to call me to come and play football. They thought I was strange, but I was a good midfielder, so what the hell, they always called me. In time, I overcame the feeling of being strange when I learned Camus was also a football player. The hardest prejudice that I had to overcome, however, came in the form of concerned sneers of my mother and her friends. They would say, “To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion [to them] is wearisome to the flesh, Ecclesiastes 12:12.”

I had to get past the communal attitudes fostered by a culture that ostensibly valued books and knowledge, yet feared and despised them at the same time. But the more I read, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone and that there were millions of people like me. I was relieved when I read Section 2 in Chapter Seven of Another Life: “I was seized by a pity more profound/ than my young body could bear,” and realized that I wasn’t mad. The fear of insanity “madness,” plagues the Jamaican psyche and reading too many books, according to many of my mother’s friends, filling my head with “the wisdom of the world in books” would drive me mad. Then they would tell me horror stories of UWI students, especially in law and medicine, who went mad from “book learning.”

But I kept on reading. I learned how to be with myself and that being alone wasn’t a bad thing. Some of my friends like Sonia Jones, Danny Morrison, Michael Witter, and Dennis Scott would lend me books that they thought I would enjoy. They were right. I would read Mervyn Morris for faith, Martin Carter for hope, and Derek Walcott for love. I would read Naipaul for humor. I was up in the tree with Man-Man when the people were throwing rocks at him and I was throwing rocks at him too. I learned more about tolerance and diversity from Edgar Mittelholzer’s, A Morning in the Office, than I did from any of my teachers at JC, especially my Bible knowledge teachers--who I now realize probably hated my guts because I was a bit of a showoff and would often parry scriptures with them. What can I say? I was young and they should have known better. Boys as they grow older will challenge the men in their lives about everything--it’s only natural.

I also read for pleasure. I loved stories with plausible plots that didn’t lead me to ask, as I do when watching television, “Now, why would they do that?” to which my son usually says, “Because it’s in the script, Dad.” I read stories with interesting dialogue between characters to whom I feel some attraction or characters whom I find reprehensible, yet they are so interesting that I want to find out what’s going to happen next.

It was this curiosity about things that were happening all around me that kept drawing me back to the books. Growing up in Jamaica, bombarded by the media on all sides, I wanted to know what was really “out there.” Growing up, too, in cosmopolitan Mona Heights where the flimsy fa├žade of race was apparent—all our fathers and their father’s fathers from India, China, Scotland, and Africa were equally foolish after a game of dominoes and drinking a few rounds of Appleton.

Books took me away from my neighborhood. They added to my experiences and gave me a broader perspective on the lives that surrounded me. This is why I sometimes feel an immense pity for my North American friends who because of race cannot enter the full partnership of author and characters because they are bound by notions of race. It may smack of Walcott’s “parochialism,” but my reading and writing begin with the Caribbean. As an aside, when it comes to the people for whom I write, I always assume a Jamaican/ Caribbean audience. Writing a book is like telling a joke, and if you have to explain a joke, it loses its meaning. It’s also pandering. If you have to explain it, you’re telling it to the wrong people. Stand firm. If you tell it right, they will come.

And I keep coming back for more. My love for reading began on a small island in the Caribbean and has grown to encompass the small universe that I have created. The red, scowling Devil doesn’t scare me any more. For I realize that the demons and the angels are also part of our imagination and our existence. I have been one of those demons. I have also been one of the angels weeping at the waste: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” In my small world, my library, the wolf and the lamb lie down together: Omeros sits beside The Arrivants; Love in a Time of Cholera nudges Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, July’s People leans on Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, and all is well.


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FSJL said...

Interesting to see that you tracked Dennis's reading. I used to conduct raids on his stock of science fiction -- and other books, such as the Morte D'Arthur -- when I lived off Collins Green.

Jdid said...

i read like everything under the sun from the public library and my own school library until about thrd form when i realized that my school work needed more attention as my grades were suffering.
i never gave up books completely though just had to seriously cut down and read mainly in the vacations.

Geoffrey Philp said...

My excuse to continue reading was to become a literature major. Then, after everyone convinced me I would never be a writer, I entered graduate school @ University of Miami,determined to become a critic.