Insomnia

Insomnia, by Stephen King, stands as one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

In the summer of 1997, just a few months after I discovered my love of reading, I decided I wanted to use my three months away from school to sufficiently challenge my reading chops.  I wanted to see just how far I could take this literary trip.  I decided I wanted to read one of those fat novels, thick like a brick of cash, that I used to see my mother read when I was a kid.  In her case, they were romance novels, but that didn’t really matter to me.

I just remember sitting in the family car (or minivan or pickup truck) driving to Magic Mountain or Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm or wherever and watching my mother read a gigantic book, while she sat in the front seat beside my father who was, at the time, serving his thankless role as family chauffeur.  I was always wowed by the idea that, not only could someone read a book of that size, but they would do so on purpose—and, presumably, enjoy the process.

So, at the age of 19, having discovered my own love for reading, I wanted to know if I was one of those people who could read one of those huge books.  This led me to take my first trip—as an actual reader of books!—to Barnes & Noble.  It was an exciting moment for me, because not only did going to a bookstore make me feel (and, hopefully, appear) smart, but I actually wanted to be there.  I couldn’t wait to choose from the thousands and thousands of books, each of which contained a little movie inside that I could watch in my head.

About five seconds after I stepped into Barnes & Noble, I realized that there were too many books.  I had no idea how to sift through the vast inventory of books, how to filter the good from the bad.  More importantly than that, I had no idea what sort of books I would enjoy.  Up to that point, I’d completed only three books: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby and Star Wars (see if you can guess which of these books wasn’t assigned to me in school).  There were so many aisles and different genres, I didn’t know where to begin.  So, I decided to start with the only writer I had ever heard of.

Stephen King.

Even without being a reader, I knew that Stephen King was one of the most successful writers in the world, so I figured he must also be good at it.  Whether or not I was right didn’t really matter to me at the moment.  I was just happy to have reduced my choices down to a single author.  After some searching around, I found the section of Barnes & Noble that held a seemingly endless line of Stephen King books.  Having found them, I started looking only for the thickest books on the shelves—and the book that stood out to me the most was Insomnia.  I can’t tell you why exactly, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I’d never heard of it before. And possibly the fact that, since I was a kid, I’ve always had trouble sleeping, the story appealed to me. Just to be sure, I read the back cover:

Ralph Roberts used to be an ordinary guy—until insomnia robbed him of sleep.  Now he’s no longer ordinary—he can see horrible things happening to the people of Derry, Maine.  He can see how, one by one, they are turning into monsters straight from hell. He’d like to call them nightmares, but he’s wide-awake.  He can’t call himself crazy, because there is another person who sees these happenings, too.  But even if seeing is believing, it still doesn’t give him a clue of how to stop these deadly, demonic visions from coming true….

Even now, looking back on this book, I find that synopsis appealing, so it’s no wonder that I chose Insomnia for my summer reading challenge.  Aside from its promising synopsis, the book itself was nearly 700 pages long and about as thick as a deli sandwich.  While it was challenging, I got through about 98% of the book that summer.  For whatever reason, the final 2% felt like something of a chore, so Insomnia sat in my room for months, going unfinished.

In retrospect, it might have been the pleasure delayer in me that didn’t want to finish the book.  Even now, I find that I savor the last few pages of any book I read, even ones I don’t especially enjoy.  What eventually got me to finish was my Uncle Phil, who, himself an avid reader, wanted to borrow the book when I was done, so I went ahead and finished it.

That was about 14 years ago and, hopefully you’ll understand, I can hardly remember anything about the story.  I didn’t even remember the main character’s name was Ralph before I picked the book up from my shelf to refresh my memory.  The clearest memory I have of the story is three scary little men, who only Ralph could see.  They were dressed in white overcoats, like doctors, and walked around with scissors, which they could use to cut people’s lifelines—or something like that—instantly killing them.

I’m sure I didn’t get all the details right, but whether or not I can remember what the story is about isn’t really the point anyway.  It was a test of my reading chops, like a runner who decides run a marathon. When a runner finishes their first marathon, the reward isn’t the time they finished in, but rather the knowledge that they could finish it at all. As a new reader, starting and finishing a book of great length—particularly a book that nobody was forcing me to read—was one of the most important accomplishments of my life, because now I knew I could do it.

And this is why Stephen King’s Insomnia stands as one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

The Jungle

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.

Three novels?

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.