During the long, hot summers of my youth, other kids ran around and splashed in swimming pools. I holed up in my room and read. Some of what I read had an embarrassingly profound influence on my life. From age 11 until 15, for example, my favourite book in the world was Gone with the Wind. By the time my battered copy fell apart I had read it 27 times.
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” it begins. I knew that line by heart, along with many others. I knew that soon the Tarleton twins would be dead, along with the glorious Old South, and that Scarlett would be struggling for survival in a blasted, unforgiving world where she had no one to rely on but herself.
Scarlett was a thoroughly modern heroine – resourceful and cunning, essentially good, but also selfish, unscrupulous and mean. She let nothing get in her way, except for her misbegotten sentiment for that miserable loser, Ashley Wilkes.
One day – I must have been around 12 – I came to the familiar scene where Scarlett and Rhett have a drunken fight and he carries her up the stairs. This is followed in the book by a suggestive white space. The story cuts to the next morning, when Scarlett wakes up all relaxed and happy. I knew the scene well, but this time it struck me like a thunderbolt: Something unspeakably interesting happened in that white space. And suddenly I knew what it was. In that moment, I moved from innocence to experience. I discovered grown-up sex.
A book such as Gone with the Wind couldn’t be published today, of course. Its portrait of the Old South is hopelessly airbrushed, and its depictions of happy black slaves are cringe-worthy, if not downright racist. Still, it does a decent job of explaining why the South was doomed. It also introduced me to the extraordinary erotic potential of white spaces – highly underrated, in my view.
The books you read when you’re young can influence you for life. Usually these are not the ones you read in school. Usually they’re the good-bad books – cheesy tearjerkers with improbable plots and lots of action. They’re the kind of books that critics hate and ordinary people devour. The best good-bad books throw in a turbulent backdrop that allows you to absorb a bit of history without really trying. I’ve picked up a lot of history this way.
For example, until fairly late in life, everything I knew about Israel was what I’d learned from Exodus. I adored that book. I read it at least a dozen times.
Exodus turned me into a rabid fan of Israel. It taught me that Israel was full of heroic freedom fighters who just wanted peace. God gave this land to them (as the theme song from the movie went). The Jews were plucky underdogs in a big, mean world. The Arabs were craven and cruel.
Of course this picture was highly romanticized (as well as racist). The book and movie were essentially a Zionist version of modern Jewish history, and they shaped American attitudes toward Israel – as well as mine – for a generation.
Eventually I learned that Israel, as with every other country, is very far from perfect. It has its villains and its share of sins. But it has survived in a tough neighbourhood, and it still faces enemies who don’t believe in its right to exist. Exodus also introduced me to the realities of the Holocaust, which at that time wasn’t taught in high school. That started me on a profound journey from innocence to experience.
I’ve saved the most embarrassing confession for last. Yes, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – all 1,074 pages of it. Several times. It turned me into an insufferable little Objectivist. But I had lots of company. Thousands, perhaps millions, of teenagers have been inspired by this turgid libertarian rant. Even Alan Greenspan, the former central banker, was an Ayn Rand acolyte.
The book’s message is that selfishness is good, government is bad and the evil, weak parasites of the world are sucking the lifeblood of the noble producers. Or something like that. It can also be read as a quasi-philosophical justification for regarding your parents as complete sellouts and despicable human beings – always a great message when you’re 15. Plus, every few hundred pages, the heroine, Dagny Taggart, gets to have hot sex with a handsome, brilliant man.
I didn’t stay an Objectivist for long. I realized the world just wasn’t that simple. (And neither were my parents.) But I still have my tattered copy of that book with its incredibly tiny type – a reminder of the days when I tried to puzzle out the world as best I could, one dog-eared paperback at a time.
Imperfect as they are, I loved these books. And they’ll stay with me forever.