Thursday, March 21, 2002

Testimony: Second Shelf From The Bottom

by Kalev Hantsoo (Mar. 21, 2002)
(Originally published at the compleatbellairs.com)
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "You can read, and you like to read! Please excuse my amazement, but I have just come from visiting my sister's daughter, who lives up in New Hampshire. She has two children about your age, but they couldn't read their way through a box of cigarette papers. Which is scarcely odd, because their parents don't read anything except the phone book and the directions on spaghetti boxes. You like to read! Lord have mercy! Will wonders never cease...."
The Curse of the Blue Figurine

If you have an unhealthy passion for metaphor, symbolism, or any such distasteful literary device, perhaps you will best imagine my mind as a dusty old attic with hundreds of books lying smudged and dog-eared in disarray on the floor, while hundreds more stand in neat rows on the bookcases that line that dusty little room, waiting for whenever I might chance to pick them up and plow my way through them. I will add, though, that I keep most of those bedraggled little volumes safe and sound in my real bedroom. Perhaps you recognize some of their names -- 1984, King Solomon's Mines, Dante's Inferno, Brave New World, Jane Eyre, Walden, Moby-Dick, The Odyssey... Of course, there are many others lining the shelves along with these, though even you astute literary hounds may not recognize all of them quite so easily: The Hobbit, The Dark Is Rising sequence, the Redwall series, The Lord of the Rings, Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected... and one long line of tired old paperbacks, all bearing the name John Bellairs on their cracked and fading spines.

Truth be told, these are the ones I really look after carefully. However much I can appreciate the so-called classics on the other shelves, my heart lies with the more humble-looking works that you will find on the second shelf from the bottom. If you, dear reader, should ever happen to peruse these tomes, you may find a strange trend in the plots: in each, there is basically a normal, unassuming person swept off into a mission of great importance. Though this person often first objects to the new state of affairs, he or she eventually comes to terms with fate and carries out the improbable mission. Perhaps my love for these books springs from my desire to do great things and live adventurously, like so many of the characters that I am so close to. Who knows? Like me, they had all been living quietly while secretly desiring to do great deeds, perhaps because their adventurous spirits, perhaps for their families and ways of life, perhaps for both. Unlike me (as of yet, I hopefully remind myself) they are pulled into a quest and at first decide that they were better off how they were (which is, I think, how any of us would feel, confronted with such as my protagonists faced) but then begin to become a part of the journey.

My first brush with high adventure began when my brother handed down his old, weather beaten copies of the John Bellairs mysteries to me at the tender age of six. I was pulled out of my house and into the three worlds of Johnny Dixon, Anthony Monday, and Lewis Barnavelt, the three boys around whom the three series had been written. These books were my first real literary passion, and (no matter how cheesy this is gonna sound) I speak the truth when I say that they have altered my life. Anthony, Lewis, and Johnny were quiet, bookish, shy, rather self-conscious boys a few years older than I was at that point. They found friends in unlikely places, considering adults more interesting company than kids their age. I, too, am a very shy person when first met, especially around those of my own age (I often find interesting company in adults), and I make friends slowly, taking months or years to establish a friendship that will nonetheless last a long time. I have never felt a great need to find a way around this (where's the big problem?), but John's books were and still are a refuge from the occasional lonely spell. The three boys were my best friends for a long time and, strange as it may sound, I was content just to have them with me. They were always around when I needed a bit of escape from my mundane world, they were uncannily similar to me, and they lived out my own desires all at once. What more, I thought, could someone ask for? The eighteen books by the unfortunately late Mr. Bellairs were a comfort in an often-difficult world for me. They became my passion. I constantly hunted for books like them (and I still do, many times in vain) and found new worlds and friends in the other series I have mentioned and in many more books.

Since discovering John's supernatural thrillers I have developed a greater and greater passion for reading, escaping more and more into these wondrous, terrifying, adventurous, tragic, friendly, beautiful worlds, finding in each page new places and faces to see and know. Reading (once again, no matter how cheesy this is gonna sound) is one of the greatest gifts any of us can receive, yet it often goes unappreciated by most. Bellairs helped me appreciate it early enough that I will never outgrow my love of it. I still remember the delight of Professor Roderick Childermass, Ph.D., the cantankerous old terror of a man who lived across the street from Johnny, when he first met the pale twelve-year-old and learned that he loved to read, and I will thank Mr. Bellairs most of all whenever I find myself falling under the spell of a new book.

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