THE IMPORTANCE OF READING
Learning Never Stops
In Paris, I had another wakening. My education was slow and painful. From security guard I was assigned to be the orderly for Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. From this experience, years later, I wrote a novel The Tower & The River. Although it was fiction some of it was based on my acquaintance with the ambassador. During lulls in the business day, when life for Ambassador Caffery became boring, he would call me into his office and have his secretary bring us coffee, which she wasn’t too happy doing. Nevertheless, she did as ordered. I was the ambassador’s kind of sounding board. He wanted to know what was happening around Paris. He wanted to know where I hung out at night and on weekends, the bars I visited, the restaurants where I ate. He wanted to know about the people I met, the women I dated. I realized he was living vicariously through me. I told him about a Paris he was no longer a part of, nor could ever be again. Aside from being his orderly, I served as his bodyguard when he traveled. We made frequent trips around France. One such trip was a visit to the American Consulate in Cannes. With time to spare, the ambassador wanted to visit the old medieval castle at Aigues-Mortes, We went by embassy car. While there, we had dinner in a dusty restaurant in the basement of the castle. The pleased management, happy to have the American Ambassador dine in their restaurant, brought some very fine and rare bottles of Cognac from the wine cellar. Unfortunately in those years I didn’t have what you might call an “educated palate” and, like a good Marine, drank imply to be sociable. Beer and whisky were the same. Wine was either for winos or snobs. But this time with the ambassador, I held my own, drinking like a connoisseur. On about our fifth glass of Cognac, the ambassador looked at me and said, “Stephens, are you happy with your work?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “This is an honor.”
He looked at me eye-to-eye directly across the table.
“Hogwash,” he said, and I was speechless for a moment. He then continued, and what he now had to say really baffled me: “Would you not like to be me?”
What could I say? I was a sergeant in the US Marines, and he was the American ambassador to France, hardly equal peers. I smiled. Maybe he just had too many Cognacs. He continued: “The only thing that separates you from me is education.” He said little more after that, but he did have something in mind.
When we returned to Paris, Ambassador Caffery relieved me of most of my duties so that I could go to school. I took classes at the Sorbonne-French history and literature. Fortunately, in those days, there were so many GI’s going to school on the “GI Bill,” wearing their old field jackets with division patches on the sleeves and still wearing their clodhopper military boots, many classes were held in English. When I returned to America after my tour of duty in Paris, Ambassador Caffery got me an appointment to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He went on to be the U.S. Ambassador to Greece. Ironic, but again, this was another missed opportunity on my part. I did little to learn who this man was. Not so long ago a biographer, Kevin McCarthy, contacted me asking information about Jefferson Caffery. Kevin was writing a biography about Ambassador Caffery. Only when Kevin passed on bits of information to me did I realize what a great illustrious man Jefferson Caffery had been. Things that I had forgotten about him came back when the writer began probing me for information. I began to recall the ambassador explaining to me about the beauty of French architecture, and he would actually have the chauffeur stop the car to point out a particular facade on a building which he found interesting. Then there were the interesting anecdotes, like when he was a student in Paris in 1908, before automobiles, and to get around he had to travel by horse and carriage. Carriage drivers had to stop often, as required by law, to pick up their horse’s droppings. How much he could have told me had I listened.
At Georgetown, required reading were the classics like The Education of Henry Adams and George Orwell’s 1984. But my serious reading came after I graduated. I frown when I hear a college student saying he or she can’t wait until they graduate, when their studies will come to an end. What foolish thinking. Real studies, I learned, begin after college. I got through Georgetown in a record breaking two-and-a-half years by going to both day and night school. But my education was only beginning. College taught me what I had yet to learn. For a while after graduating, I took a job teaching at a junior college, which I enjoyed as the school had a great library with shelves of books from floor to ceiling.
I could do a lot of on-the-job reading. But as much as I liked my teaching job, I had been groomed for a career in the Foreign Service, and I was compelled to quit teaching and take up a government job in Washington. With my experience in China and my working with the American ambassador in Paris, I was assigned to the National Security Agency. This was not what I wanted in life-working behind closed doors, sealed off from the world, bound to a badge hanging on a chain around my neck. It was a prison badge with a mug shot and even a number like a condemned man gets when he goes to prison. More than losing my freedom, my desire to write burned strong, and it grew stronger every day. I had to break free, to get away. My wife agreed to a divorce, and I went to Tahiti to live and become a writer. I made sure there would be no turning back. I burned every bridge behind me. Tahiti was about as far away as I could get.
That was before Tahiti had an airport. Those who did arrive by air back then did so by flying boat, those wonderful old China Clippers, but not everyone could afford the fare. The other choice was to travel by freighter or by deck passage on a cargo boat. Having little money, I took a bus down through Central America to Panama and there boarded a Messagerie Maritime ship for passage across the Pacific to Tahiti. What a grand feeling. Here was the South Seas at last. Here was Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nordoff and Hall, all coming alive. I no longer had a prison badge, nor like Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an albatross around my neck. Now all I had to do was write, and read, read what I wanted to read, and read for as long as I wanted to read. I carried my Hermes typewriter, a camera, and for my reading pleasure, one hundred paperback books, all classics. To cut down weight, I tore off their covers.
As mentioned, a long time ago, I made the discovery that everything I wanted to know I could find in books. When I was a kid, I wanted to raise rabbits. I found a book in the library on raising rabbits, with everything from the size of a cage that was needed to rabbits’ mating habits. I found books on how to make bows and arrows, how to build an adobe house and how to skin an opossum without destroying the skin.
When I began building my schooner, a mammoth endeavor, the vessel being more than seventy-feet long it was books that got me through it. People would ask, rather sarcastically, “What do you know about building boats?”
My answer was simple-“I can read.”
Everything I needed to know was there somewhere in print. All I had to do was find it. Even information about such obscure and complicated things like dolphin strikers, whisker booms and futtock shrouds was available in books. Indeed, had I wanted to build a rocket to the moon, the information was there somewhere in books.
The reading has never stopped. When I built my schooner Third Sea I set up a library aboard with five hundred books, all references, histories and, of course, the classics from Stevenson to London. On one of my later Pacific crossings I signed aboard my nephew, Robert Stedman, as first mate. Robert had sailed the Pacific with me on a previous voyage, and now when he wrote to me and said he was dissatisfied with college, tired of debts and bills, tired of working for Saks Fifth Avenue in the men’s department selling neckties and shirts to get him through college, I cabled him stating that I needed a good first mate for the voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and across the Pacific to Singapore. I didn’t have to ask him twice. He joined me aboard Third Sea a few days later in Honolulu, after selling his car and everything else he could sell, and after bidding his girlfriend goodbye. In the next nine months he read eighty-six books in the ship’s library, more than he ever would have read in college and even in graduate school. He got into the reading habit and now goes through a book or two a week. After the voyage, he turned to photography and writing and has a design studio in Singapore. He wrote a wonderful introduction to my book The Last Voyage, The Story of Schooner Third Sea.
I love going to libraries. I like to browse about, taking down book from the shelves, contemplating their contents before I even open their covers. What mystery, what store of knowledge do these books hold? Here on these shelves is all the wisdom of the human race, preserved forever in the written word. I scan the authors-historians, poets, philosophers, saints, scags, scientists, all whose thoughts dominate mind and spirit. I think of all the wonderful tales that these books have revealed to us, and all the wonderful tales there are yet to tell. As I stand in the library, looking up at the rows of books on shelves, I know I cannot read them all, that is for certain, and so I put them back on the shelves. Perhaps I don’t know what is in them, but I at least know where they are. I don’t get the same feeling when I look at a computer as I do when I look at a shelf of books in a library.
When it comes to reading, the question is what to read. What authors make the best teachers? I know some people who read voluminously, which we might think is admirable, but that’s not necessarily so. If these people read trash, then they have nothing to gain. Why read junk when there is so much good stuff available? Why read Valley of the Dolls when it could be The Great Gatsby? When getting into the reading habit, it’s just as easy to read good books, the great books, as it is to read dime novels.
Good reading training begins with short stories. Much can be gleaned from short stories. For a start, consider O. Henry. He was a prolific American short-story writer, a master of surprise endings. O. Henry was the pen name for William Sydney Porter. He was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, but he wrote mostly about New York City and life in the big city. One another marvelous short story writer that should not be by passed is Guy de Maupassant, a French author who is generally considered the greatest French short story writer of all time. Try to think up a plot for a short story with a surprising end in and you will probably find it comes from one of these two authors.
l will venture to say one of the greatest short stories ever written was “The Lottery” by American author Shirley Jackson. It’s been voted as one of the Twenty Great American Short Stories in the Library of American Literary Classics. “The Lottery” is a dark, unforgettable tale of the unthinking and murderous customs of a small New England town. Shirley Jackson is also the author of several American gothic novels such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Her atmospheric stories explore themes of psychological turmoil, isolation, and the inequity of fate.
At a very young age, I discovered William Saroyan. I liked his writing, and I liked the man for what he stood for. He wrote novels, plays, essays, short stories, biographies, everything. He is most famous for The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze, The Human Comedy and The Time Of Your Life. I especially liked his short story about a boy who had never driven a car in his life but who took on the task of chauffeuring a car for a rich Cibawa Indian. For those who want to study dialogue, Saroyan is the author. Through dialogue alone he could move a story. In some stories, he ended each line of dialogue with “he said” or “she said.” He never used adjectives, only nouns and verbs. He was a master of style.
William Saroyan was more than a writer. He should serve as an inspiration to aspiring writers everywhere. He decided at the age of fifteen to become a writer, and he taught himself to write. He began by reading, and he learned to write entirely on his own. A few of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly. Many of his stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley of central California, or else they dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram, an international best-seller, was about a young boy, Aram Garoghlanian, and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. Written years ago, I find it appropriate for today’s readers.
As a writer, Saroyan made his breakthrough in Story magazine with The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. The protagonist is a young, starving writer who tries to survive in a Depression-ridden society.
Among Saroyan’s best-known plays is The Time of Your Life, set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan refused the honor on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts, but he accepted the New York Drama Critics Circle award. In 1948, the play was adapted into a film starring James Cagney.
Saroyan also published essays and memoirs in which he depicted the people he had met on travels in the Soviet Union and Europe, such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Charlie Chaplin. During World War II Saroyan joined the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Astoria, Queens, but he spent much of his time at the Lombardy Hotel in Manhattan, far from Army personnel. In 1942, he was posted to London as a part of a film unit and narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946) turned out to be pacifist. “Everybody has got to die,” he had said, “but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” Of all forms of writing-novels, essays, poetry, biographies, histories, short stories-I like writing short stories the best. There is more truth that I can write in short stories than I can in novels and certainly in biographies. Plots run wild though a writer’s mind continuously, or at least mine, and most of them come from real life experiences, I had no sooner completed Tales From the Pacific Rim, tales which I had begun gathering for ten years, than I began plotting my next collection from my every day thoughts. Sometimes I feel like Walter Mitty. Remember him, Walter Mitty, the fictional character in James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”? Walter goes through life in deep thought, to the annoyance of his wife, with his vivid fantasies. He imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer. Unfortunately, the character’s name has come into more general use to refer to an ineffectual dreamer, and I hope I haven’t slipped into the same category. Nevertheless, dreaming is what creates writing. And I repeat, without dreaming, we wouldn’t have writing.