THE IMPORTANCE OF READING
Start Early at Home
I had a sister four years older than me, and she was a genius. She could talk to animals. She had regular conversations with them, and she had them give answers to all the questions that I, an eight-year old wide-eyed boy, had to ask. Aside from being able to talk to animals, I marveled that she knew how to speak French and Spanish and she could communicate with witches and elves. She read to me every day, and I listened to her, and I believed her. What a marvelous advantage to have an older sister, or brother, who reads to you and turns you on to books and the mysteries of the written word.
At a very young age I found that a book is like food. You read it, you devour it, and it becomes part of your body. The contents become you, flesh, ‘bones and cells. It affects you in more than one way. It becomes part of every pore in your body. You can’t shake what you read. You can read something else, however, that may conflict with what you read earlier, something you wholly believed, but nevertheless that original thought remains there forever. As a kid, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books did that to me. I read his Tarzan of the Apes, and I was hooked. The story became real to me, and no one could say it wasn’t so. After reading the first book in the series, I devoured every one that followed-The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan and The Forbidden City, The Son of Tarzan and a dozen more. I tried to imagine the life of a boy growing up in the jungle, with only apes and wild beasts for friends to guide him. I built tree houses and made swings of vines. But I was discovering that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books were more than fantasy. They were a study of anthropology, of human nature. Edgar Rice Burrough has stayed with me all my life.
The book Tarzan of the Apes may sound simple, even juvenile, but as a young lad, it fired up my mind and got me thinking. Still, I had to hide the fact from my peers that I was reading Tarzan. Many looked upon Tarzan as a comic book hero. But for me, he took on a real meaning. Could a boy raised by apes ever learn to walk on two feet? Even more uncertain, although he could talk with the apes, could he talk like a human being? Tarzan could. How did this happen? We have to understand his background. The ship that carried Tarzan’s mother and father was shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. His father was Lord Greystoke, and his wife was expecting a child, thus they were carrying children’s books and learners. Lord Greystoke and his wife were the sole survivors, and they were able to salvage much of their belongs. As castaways, Lord Greystoke built a cabin at the edge of the jungle. It was there that Tarzan was born. But his mother died in childbirth, and great apes that came upon the site killed his father. The apes carried the infant boy off into the jungle and raised him. When he was still a boy swinging through the trees be discovered his dead parent’s cabin and by studying the pictures in the books he taught himself to read and write. Was this possible, especially when he couldn’t talk? It was all so intriguing, and great food for thought. Today, I can’t look at a tree without thinking about a child swinging through its branches who could read and write but not talk.
Learning how to write without having read books would be like wanting to be a jockey in the Kentucky Derby and not knowing how to ride a horse or joining the high school swim team and not knowing how to swim. Wanting to write without reading is the same; they go hand in hand. A student can have the best teachers in the world, and study at the finest university, but unless he or she reads, it’s pointless to continue dreaming.
My sister kept the fire for reading burning even after I left home. When I was in the Marines serving overseas in the Pacific, she sent me books to read about the Pacific by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. When she learned I was on my way to China, she sent appropriate ones, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and several of the works of a Chinese writer/scholar named Lin Yutang. By getting me to read Lin Yutang, my sister developed my interest in philosophy. Lin Yutang, as did Pearl Buck, opened doors for me, and when I arrived in China with the Marines, I knew something about the country, the people, their habits and customs and their religion.
Books can do everything. I was always interested in sailing, even long before I ever saw the sea. In the libraries I found books on sailing. I read one book about three brothers who had a schooner and sailed the South Seas, and I longed to do the same. I vowed that I would one day, and then when I read Jack London’s Cruise of the Snark, I knew it was possible. London taught himself to sail. I could do the same. And later in life I did. These were wild ideas for a kid on a farm far from the sea, but without ideas, hopes and dreams, what do we have? Take away a man’s dreams and he becomes like an albatross without wings, a life without goals.
My reading in earnest began in Paris. After I returned to the States from China, and fearing the outside world, I signed up for another hitch in the Marines. The Marine Corps made a mistake, however. Instead of assigning me to a naval base or sending me to shipboard for duty, they shipped me to Paris as a security guard. Take the farm boy to Paris and things will happen. For me, it was my growing up period, my awakening. I went there as a young Marine, fresh from the battlefields of the Pacific. I was innocent. I always wanted to be a writer, that was true, but I had no idea where to begin. Like I said, I wanted to join the swim team, but I couldn’t swim. My education was limited, a ninth grade high school dropout. Now, like a miraculous flower opening up, Paris’ doors of learning opened up to me. It was exposure to the arts and the people who created them that did it. My awakening came when I met an old Marine Corps buddy from boot camp. His name was Van Beverly, and he was studying painting. A rough, tough former Marine studying to be an artist! Was he serious? He was most serious. He introduced me to the student world on the Left Bank. I saw what art meant to students who were serious. The lack of money was no hindrance to them, and I envied them.
Paris after the war was a great place to grow up. The unfortunate tragedy, and it didn’t became apparent until years later, was that I didn’t realize at the time how much was slipping through my fingers. I remember going into Harry’s New York bar one evening with another Marine from the embassy, Jack Walters. There was a bearded guy sitting at a table at the back of the bar. “Who’s he?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s some writer I suppose,” Jack replied.
The bartender spoke up. “He’s Ernest Hemingway. You don’t know him?”
“Yea, I heard the name,” Jack said, lying.
Andy, Harry’s son and bartender, pointed out other characters in the bar. Sitting in a booth in a comer was a Frenchman with thick glasses. “And who’s he?” we asked.
“Jean Paul Sartre, a philosopher and literary genius,” Andy answered.
And there were others, so many more, and I had the chance of meeting them but I didn’t.
As the years passed, and I got to know Andy better, we often joked about those days. And later, in Spain, I did get to meet Hemingway.
As I think back now, there was all this exposure I had in Paris, and I took little advantage of it. There was another writer, however, who didn’t pass up the opportunity of living in Paris. He, too, was a former Marine who had fought in the Pacific. His name was Art Buchwald. He was kind of loud and boisterous but a likeable sort of guy. It was fun being around him. You knew when he was coming through the door at Harry’s Bar even before you looked. He entered with a bang, a grin on his face and a joke ready to be told. He was the kind of guy that when he told a joke, you laughed even before he had finished it.
That was a long time ago, when the world was much different. Parisians then rode to their offices on bicycles, and they had yet to patch up the bullet holes in the Hotel de Crillon next to the American Embassy on the Place de la Concorde. The year was 1949, and the war was over, and we were all part of the grand experience of living in Paris, living in a nameless era between the Lost Generation (Paris in the ’20s) and the Beat Generation (Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s.)
I had met Art earlier that year at a dinner party at the home of Leonard Thornton, the district manager of TWA in Paris. Art was a humorist even then and kept everyone at dinner laughing with his antics. I have to admit, I envied him, for he had already launched his writing career in Paris with the Night Owl column while I only had hopes of becoming a writer. The difference was Art knew what he wanted, and went after it. At seventeen, Art had run away to join the Marine Corps and spent three-and-a-half years in the Pacific during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant. After his discharge he entered the University of Southern California but dropped out in 1948 and went to France, where he landed a job as a correspondent for Variety just as his money was running out. A year later, when I met him, he began writing a column on speculation for The Paris Herald Tribune called “Paris After Dark.” It was an overnight success, and the Tribune hired him full time. Art Buchwald had made it, and we were all thrilled.
Now, with his name behind him, it was fun doing the haunts of Paris while he gathered bits and pieces for his column. There wasn’t a dive we didn’t know nor a jazz joint that passed our scrutiny. Then in 1951, Art started another column, “Mostly About People,” that featured interviews with celebrities in Paris. He was moving up the ladder. The next year, Paris Herald Tribune introduced him to U.S. readers through yet another column, “Europe’s Lighter Side.”
Paris in those day was good training ground for writers and artists, and Art was a part of it all. I regret I didn’t take more advantage of the times. The city was a magnet for Picasso, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orwell, Hemingway and many more of the illuminati. As I mentioned, at Harry’s you could find Ernest Hemingway sitting on a stool and, if you found a seat next to him, he took the time to chat with you. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sat in a corner, more standoff, but James Jones at the bar willingly talked about his latest chapter in From Here to Eternity. They all became Art Buchwald’s fraternity and they knew him by first name.
Art returned to the United States in 1962, and our two worlds parted. I put my writing on hold and started college. I met Art once at a party in Washington, D.C. at the home of the Travel Editor of the Washington Post, but that was the last time. But I could never forget him. He arrived in Washington at the height of the Kennedy administration, set himself up in an office two blocks from the White House and began a long career lampooning Washington’s elite.
Buchwald was a humorist to the end. He died of kidney failure at home, surrounded by family, nearly a year after he stunned them by rejecting medical treatments aimed at keeping him alive. He had been told by his doctors that his end was near. One would have to admit, he made the most of every last minute of his life. Instead of dying, he resumed his twice-weekly column and wrote Too Soon to Say Goodbye, a book about the experience. He worked book-signing parties in Washington and New York from his wheelchair.
Art lived another year and was eighty-one when he died. Paris, and certainly Washington, will never be the same without him. He was an inspiration for anyone who wants to write. We thought he was crazy when he gave up Paris, where he was known and respected, to move to Washington to start a new, uncertain career. But he knew what he wanted, and he went for it.