Stirring the Spark with Madame DeFarge by Kirk Wareham

My reading adventures began in 1968, that scathingly abrasive year when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of deluded men. On the ninth of June, I was unceremoniously tossed from a rural town into the flames of Akron, Ohio.

I was thirteen, and the city was burning around me.

In the tense and sweltering days and nights of July, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that “rioting on Wooster Avenue in one of Akron’s poorest black neighborhoods had paralyzed the region since Wednesday with dusk-to-dawn curfews. With gas masks and riot shields, police marched down Wooster Avenue, troops with bayonetted rifles and tear gas by their side.” Armored tanks, dispatched by Major General DelCorso of the Ohio National Guard, patrolled the streets.

I can still remember the smell of smoke, the scream of sirens, the relentless late-summer heat that mirrored the stress and frustration of an oppressed and angry populace.

In the midst of all this, I was trying to get an education. Navigating the chipped corridors of West Junior High, I would walk directly in front of any available teacher down the stairwell to avoid being robbed yet again on the landing halfway down. Frequently I witnessed the spectacle of dark young ghetto teenagers surrounding some poor white kid in a tight circle on the front lawn as he took yet another beating, paying the price, as it were, for the sins and failures of his forebears and the current emotional state of the country.

For me, the overriding concern of each day was how to get safely home. Would the formerly-jailed delinquent with the personal grudge against me be hanging out just off school property? Should I make a dash for the corner Five & Ten, with its shelves of comic magazines, newspapers, Sugar Daddies, Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and Willie Mays baseball cards, or should I take the dark and always-dangerous shortcut through the back alley?

Academics had always been, for me, as easy as slipping on icy pavement in February. But the result of all the extracurricular activity was that the books we studied in English Literature failed to leave any imprint on my mind, or stir a spark. I am now sufficiently removed in years from that class and teacher to make this statement boldly: the books we studied, A Separate Peace, The Return of the Native, A Tale of Two Cities, were colossal bores. The troubles of Gene Forrester, Thomasin Yeobright, and Sidney Carton paled in comparison with mine, and were merely dismal interludes in a high-stakes game of personal survival. 

Heck, I just wanted to live to see another sunrise.

Some years later, I spent a night in a taciturn hotel near the western border of Pennsylvania. Some generous soul had placed a book on the bedside stand. I picked it up, recognized A Tale of Two Cities, and the old days of West Junior High and English Literature class flashed before my eyes. Curious to see if the book had, like fine wine, improved with age, I opened it and began reading.

Several hours later, during a brief respite in the French Revolution, I became aware that it was three o’clock in the morning. Spellbound by Dicken’s powerful prose, I was two-thirds of the way through the book, sucked into a vortex of barbarity, retribution, and exploitation. I finished the book in the morning, and never looked back.

Isn’t it amazing how time and context can change your perspective on something? A Tale of Two Cities became the first entry on a book list I have kept ever since. The second title to make the list was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Who can forget Eliza’s harrowing break for freedom to the Ohio shore over the pitching and splintered fragments of ice, a baby, unaware and innocent, enfolded in her desperate arms? Scanning my reading list these days is like reliving my entire life: a string of Russian novels will be followed by a dozen Dickens, followed by a handful of Alan Paton or anything to do with South Africa or Israel, or the brilliance of John Steinbeck or gentle George MacDonald. I will admit, with some embarrassment, that even Louis L’Amour made the cut.

It was a feeding frenzy that has not slowed for 45 years. The deep well of my literary consumption was always primed and brimming over. Here or there a specific book rose savagely from the common herd and branded my mind indelibly. Some books appear on the list multiple times, a testament to the level of enjoyment derived from previous encounters.

And certain books are powerfully associated with important world events that were taking place at the time I was reading them. When the Iron Curtain fell and shocked the world on November 9, 1989, I was in the middle of reading The Human Comedy by William Saroyan; that book and the falling of the Iron Curtain will forever be tied together in my memory. On September 11, 2001, I was reading Freedom Road by Howard Fast, a book I would rank alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its vivid portrayal and powerful condemnation of slavery. A reference to the book Freedom Road will forever conjure up images in my mind of airplanes exploding into high-rise buildings.

As a child, reading stories together was a cherished experience that drew my family of 11 together and created memories that are alive and flourishing to this day. Despite an age range of toddlers to collegians, we read hundreds of stories and books together. Mother would read, while occupations took place all around the room. While enrapt in listening to the story, some of us would launch a full-scale assault on a 1000-piece puzzle, while others knelt on the floor and crocheted hearthrugs out of colored strips of cloth, and still others knitted sweaters and scarves and skating socks, the clack-click-clack of needles warning of snow and ice to come. Children of tender years curled up in any cozy spot they could find, perhaps the lap of a sibling, or a willing uncle, or a neighbor who had happened by. Grandpa was always included, fast asleep, with his open mouth emitting strange and lovely purrs. A candle was lit, the lights were dimmed. We loved every minute of it.

Reading, I have found, is the glittering doorway of life flung wide, beckoning us to the spellbinding world beyond. Admission to this astounding new world is free.

Reading widely will blow the lid off of our frog-pond view of the world, will utterly transform it. Reading demands that we set aside our natural biases to discover and appreciate other amazing people, cultures, and nations. Books allow us to travel the world at lightning speed, and to do so at zero cost. We are able, through reading, to travel backward into time or forward into the future, and we are ushered into imaginary fantasy worlds, all from the comfort of our homes.

Could anything more miraculous ever be invented or imagined?

And finally, reading can lead to writing, the sudden impulse to lift a pen or tickle a keyboard to create something new and joyous that has never existed before, to make a personal contribution to the literary landscape of the ages.

So pick up a book, turn your feet to new places, lift your eyes to the shimmering stars, and explore this strange and wonderful world. Lean in close to Madame DeFarge, and gaze into her sinister eyes as she knits up a storm of terror and revenge. Tumble and feast, laugh and sweat with Huck and his friend Jim as they drift the skiff towards New Orleans and emancipation. Taste the bitter dust that chafes the parched lips of Tom Joad as his dilapidated truck flounders up Bakersfield way. Lash yourself, alongside Ahab and his one remaining leg, to the clammy gunwale of Moby Dick as he surfaces in a last monstrous thunderous catapulting surging leap from the darkened depths.

Reading is pure magic.

 The author is a father of six, grandfather of three, a lover of nature, an avid distance runner, and has a strong passion for reading and writing. Over the past 25 years, he has written many short stories and numerous personal essays. One of his short stories was published in a 2015 anthology that included stories by Alan Paton, C. S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, and others. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/culture/short-stories/easter-stories/easter-stories-book.

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