The first book I ever read, beginning to end, was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I was 19 years old. While I’ve been a strong reader for as long as I can remember, I wasn’t always good at comprehending the thoughts and ideas represented by the words on the page. This may very well explain why I loved comic books so much growing up. In fact, the only book I went out of my way to try and read as a kid was the novelization of the 1989 movie Batman written by Craig Shaw Gardener. And the only reason I read that was because I spent an entire calendar year in anxious anticipation of the theatrical release of Batman. I was about 12 years old at the time and, incidentally, my brother, Greg, took me to a midnight showing of Batman at Universal Studios (this was before they added the Universal City Walk) on the night of it's release. Batman, Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster film, represented three of my greatest passions as a 12-year-old boy: Movies, comic books, and superheroes.
Batman, in particular, was my favorite superhero; while, like most any other comic book fan, I appreciated fantasy-driven super powers, I loved that Batman’s abilities were framed by the limitations of being human. Specifically, this led me to believe that I could one day grow up to be Batman—or some similar superhero.
And, for a while there, I had some serious aspirations of becoming the real life version of the caped crusader. I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is the only reason I bought Gardener’s novelization of Batman (with my weekly five-dollar allowance, mind you) wasn’t because I loved to read, but because I loved Batman.
While I read the book nearly everyday, I couldn’t really comprehend what I was reading. I could appreciate the broad strokes, but most of the time I was simply exercising my ability to read words without actually engaging in the story that those words were telling. I’m pretty confident that I never finished reading the book (however, I did write a terrible book report on it the morning that the report was due). And that was pretty much the only real novel that I ever tried to read on my own; not to say that I read novels that were assigned to me in school, because I didn’t do that either.
But all of that changed in the fall of 1996—or was it the spring of 1997?—when, during my first year in college, I took a U.S. History class. There were three novels assigned to read in that class: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Babbit by Sinclair Lewis. Having recently completed a mediocre high school career, I decided that I wanted to make a fresh academic start in college. I wanted to apply myself and see what I could make of it. This ambition, however, was nearly knocked out of me when I learned I would have to read three novels for one class during an 18-week semester.
In 18 weeks?!
I was all but ready to drop out of college at that point, but, having no other life options at the time, I figured it was best I stayed and gutted it out.
The Jungle was first on the list. The professor gave us roughly a month to finish Sinclair’s novel, before being tested on it. It’s over four-hundred pages and, in my memory, the font is super tiny. Because I’d never finished a book in a year, let alone a month, I decided I should come up with some sort of strategy. First, I broke the book down by pages, giving myself the goal of reading approximately 15 pages a day. For the first day I sat in my backyard, hoping the quiet and fresh air would magically make the book come to life.
I remember the first chapter being boring and difficult to understand. There was a wedding, as I recall, with the protagonist of the novel, Jurgis, and his young bride, Ona.
“It was almost too much for her—you could see the pain of too great emotion in her face, and all the tremor of her form. She was so young—not quite sixteen—and small for her age, a mere child. And she had just been married—and married to Jurgis, of all men, to Jurgis Rudkus, he with the white flower in the buttonhole of his new black suit, he with the mighty shoulders and the giant hands.”
-Upton Sincalir, The Jungle
I got through my 15 pages and, as usual, comprehended little to none of it. I was very frustrated and my hopes of excelling in college were quickly being dashed. The next day I stayed in my room for my 15 pages of torture. Lying on my bed, holding the book over my face, I began reading again. I didn’t change my technique nor did I enter into the reading with any sort of optimism…and yet, during that reading, something amazing happened.
At some point—and can’t tell you when—the words on the page came to life. It was as if my imagination was filtering Sinclair’s prose and projecting it into a movie in my head.
In fact, the words went away completely and all I could see was Jurgis and his long and difficult journey as an immigrant trying to survive in America. I was so caught up with the beautiful story that was playing out in my head that I didn’t even realize it was happening. And when I did figure out what was going on, I stopped reading and thought to myself:
“Holy shit, I’m reading!”
Then, because I stopped, I feared it was a one-time phenomenon and by haulting my momentum I might not be able to tap into the book’s story again. I began reading right away and, to my great relief, I was still able to turn the words into a movie in my head.
I would go on to finish that 400-page novel, with the tiny font, in three days. I was absolutely blown away by the experience. Sitting here, reliving this memory, I can hardly recall what The Jungle was about.
I remember Jurgis was married and I remember (spoiler alert!) his wife, Ona, dies. I remember times were good for a little while and times got significantly tough soon thereafter. I remember Jurgis took any job he could get, including shoveling manure and working in a meatpacking warehouse. I remember going on an emotional rollercoaster, rejoicing in Jurgis’ victories and feeling distraught during his defeats.
“He had lost in the fierce battle of greed, and so was doomed to be exterminated; and all society was busied to see that he did not escape the sentence. Everywhere he turned were prison bars, and hostile eyes following him; the well-fed, sleek policemen, from whose glances he shrank, and who seemed to grip their clubs more tightly when they saw him; the saloon keepers, who never ceased to watch him while he was in their places, who were jealous of every moment he lingered after he paid his money; the hurrying throngs upon the streets, who were deaf to his entreaties, oblivious of his very existence, and savage and contemptuous when he forced himself upon them.”
-Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
To this day, I can’t explain to you what it was about The Jungle that unlocked my love for reading. If I were going to encourage somebody who doesn’t love books to start reading, I certainly wouldn’t tell them to start with The Jungle.
And yet, it worked for me.
Jurgis certainly isn’t Batman, but, like Bruce Wayne, he’s simply a man trying to do his best within the rigid boundaries of his mortal body. And while The Jungle isn’t anything like Tim Burton’s film, it is an engaging and cinematic story, filled with heroes and villains. From the moment I finished it, I felt like I’d discovered some grand secret: every single novel ever written was actually a movie disguised in words. From that day on, I couldn’t wait to read as many of those movies as I could get my hands on.