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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Trash and me

June 1st, 2003

BY REBECCA OWEN

In junior high I knew what I was supposed enjoy reading. I knew it depended on perspective and so I read it all and liked nearly everything that I read for one reason or another. I read the short books assigned at school, the longer and stranger things suggested by helpful teachers, the fun and unexpected things suggested by our odd collection of neighbors, the books we had to read because they were so great, according to friends, the great lit one sister foisted on me and the trash from under the bed of another. On my own I read my parents’ library, which was a mix of Book of the Month Club, military history, nature writing, and travelogues, with an occasional serious work slipped in. I read cookbooks and Gourmet from the time I was in grade school.

This describes what I read today, more or less, although the trash I like now is more in the line of murder mystery than the Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susan stuff favored by my sister. And the Book of the Month club has been replaced by the award lists.

I don’t really think about my secret reading as reading, but rather in the same category as drug experiences, or a liking for a bit of the rough, or surreptitious consumption of entire boxes of chocolate. It’s not quite a topic for public disclosure. My secret reading may have been more influential in a negative way than any of the recommended or at least sanctioned reading. I am an actuary because I am a mathematician and I am a mathematician because I studied mathematics, chemistry and physics at university, and I did that because I was too dreamy to be an engineer.

I knew I had to do this because I liked, gulp, science fiction and fantasy, and I did not know anyone in high school that read the genre, except the sort of weird guys that built Heath kits, learned BASIC and played 3D chess in the chemistry prep room. It is still a sort of tawdry thing to enjoy, despite the reissue of the classics. We know this as we slouch to the counter clutching a stack of books with garish covers, ashamed of our compulsion to read Neuromancer again.

Of course it was Tolkien that caused my fall from grace. I read him first at a miserable period in my life, junior high. God, what a horrible time that was for any bookish, chunky, poorly dressed, sensitive child. Add to it the isolation of a small ranch in Colorado, distant parents, the weirdness of the late Sixties, the expulsion from the house of two misbehaving sisters, the death of my beloved horse — and any escape, any escape at all, would have been welcome. I had read the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections reprinted by Dover in the different colors and loved Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology. I was ready for Tolkien. I read the trilogy over and over, sometimes in entirety, sometimes just the parts that suited me. I read it for the passion, because I wanted to believe that good and evil are distinct and different, for the heroics, for the joy of entering an entirely contained small world of vast inner dimensions, and for the mythic quality that we, the devoted, love so much about these books. Middle Earth wasn’t real, but then I didn’t feel like I lived in a world that had any relevance to me anyway.

When I emerged from the fog to find myself in high school, I was hooked. On the outside I still was the model reader to all purposes. I read the harder and harder books set for me by a grumpy but caring English teacher: The USA trilogy, which was very nearly the subject of this essay, The Crying of Lot 49, or Lewis Mumford, ye gods. My tastes were as catholic as before, perhaps moreso because I was exercising more of my own judgment, but I also read Bester, LeGuin, Asimov, and Herbert. Reading this genre twisted my perspective a little, as it should. Even though my science and math was not my strong suit and I found the liberal arts wondrously entertaining, I knew that at heart I was like the guys with chalk in their hair. I wanted to do hard science and the magic of mathematics, even if I had a lot of catching up to do in order to be good and despite some strong persuasion to go in a different direction.

Thank goodness I was not entirely like most of the high school addicts. They went on to read Silmarillion and create fantasy games, and they wrote in weird runes for a while, but I never fell that far from grace. However, even now I sometimes have a Lost Weekend consuming three or four books in a sort of bliss of self-indulgence I never feel with more refined reading. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Owen | Link to this Entry

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