As a child, I was fairly lucky: my teachers made great choices for reading assignments, so I never needed much prodding to dive into books. Yet, my first encounter with what can be called a “great” book resulted from a pursuit outside of the classroom.
Being a part of the “baby boom,” I grew up as the Cold War gained traction. From the beginning of elementary school on, I was taught to fear the Soviet bloc. The Communists, as far as I could tell, turned out to be another word for the Russians. “Commies” hid everywhere, and any monsters that may have resided under the bed had their “boogeyman” status diminished by these “Reds,” as if members of this group possessed supernatural powers. It was a group everyone in the country seemed wary of.
Some dug up their yards, constructing steel-and-cement bomb shelters; we students were subjected to regular air raid drills, scurrying under our desks while sirens screamed outside from a firehouse not far from the school building.
I became curious.
What made these guys so dangerous and frightening to the adults surrounding me? I tried finding out what I could, but even in the fourth grade all I could detect was hyperbolic hysteria. Those fears became more real when President Kennedy discovered the Soviet Union sneaking missiles into Cuba. Although still young, I picked up on the panic of those around me during that week in October of 1962. All we heard was how Russians were set on destroying the free world.
Leaving public-school, I began fifth grade at a private school. This was when I first encountered the “summer reading list” and, as mentioned earlier, started a lifetime of reading. From the extended naturalistic narration of Drums Along the Mohawk to the sparse “journaling” approach of Death Be Not Proud, my teachers fed us a steady literary diet.
The Russians dropped from view as I adapted to this new educational environment. However, they returned a year later when a sixth-grade teacher referred to Russians as “Mongol hordes.” Hoping this new label might help in my research, I looked up the word Mongol and found it referred to Mongolia, a land bordering China and Russia and where the original Russians came from in prehistoric times.
I needed more than that.
Still, it wasn’t until my seventh-grade year that I ran into truly great literature, and it was an accident arising from this revitalized interest in learning about Russia and Russians. The book was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
I spied it resting under the glass counter of the school’s bookstore. I think it was the book’s cover that initially drew me to it. Its minimalist graphics—a stark depiction of a desperate face rendered in muted colors behind coiled strands of barbed wire—contrasted with the splashy and ambitious cover designs I was used to seeing.
Then, there was the fact that it was a book about Russia—and written by a Russian at that. The clincher was a banner along the top of its cover: “Banned in the USSR.”
By now I knew that that was the abbreviation for Soviet Russia, but this was the first time I had heard the notion of “banning” books or censorship of any kind. Once I got the basic lowdown on the book, I bought it, and I was on my way. I don’t recall what class it was assigned to, but I remember the clerk questioning why I would even try and read such a book since it was for upper school classes.
Did it affect my life as a reader?
To start, it took me only a week to read—and that was along with whatever schoolwork and other activities that a kid that age has going on. I plowed through it whenever I had the chance, devoting every spare moment to reading. It grabbed me to such a degree that it took up residence in the liner pocket of my school blazer, establishing a now-lifelong habit of taking a book with me everywhere so that I can read while waiting on lines.
Furthermore, it sparked my interest in things Russian, and when I finally returned to school at 35 or so, my first plan was to major in modern Russian history and literature. From the fiction of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky to the dystopian works of Zamyatin to the poetry of Akmatova or Yevtushenko, it was Solzhenitsyn who first piqued my interest in the writers of this nation, and it was Solzhenitsyn who provided my first reading of “great” literature.
I was also off to the races, literarily at least. It not only influenced my reading habit, it sparked my interest in writing. In fact, my MFA (earned some 30+ years later) was in creative non-fiction, a choice that has to be credited to, among other influences, having had the chance to meet Ivan Denisovich.
So, thanks to the dissidents among us, for they really provide the friction needed to create pearls.
Finale: Returning to the plague as subject matter