My mother read for pleasure. She had a nice collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, as well as a subscription to the magazine. I read them all, too – I recall many movie plots from having read the condensed versions of the novels back in the 1970s. Some of my siblings read a little for pleasure, most don’t. My little brothers read the sports pages. One of my older brothers has read quite a bit of Marxist literature, which I wouldn’t call reading for pleasure, but who knows.
My favorite books as a little kid were Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and this giant dictionary. The appeal of Yertle the Turtle is timeless; the dictionary had a whole section in the front on the solar system. Not only was Pluto a planet back then, but there were pictures, and tables on rotational period and year and mean distance and – wow! Just all kinds of stuff! I couldn’t remember the names of my innumerable cousins, for example, but I could tell you that Venus takes 225 days to go around the sun.*
I got in trouble in 2nd grade for pointing out to my classmates that Lost in Space made no sense – everything was too far apart in space for them to get to a new place every week. My peers were not interested – a trend that has continued unabated, if not waxing more pronounced, over time.
This reveals a trait that got me chased out of the living room by my siblings more than once: I couldn’t watch TV without calling out ridiculous plot elements, especially when they had to do with science. Imagine a 9 year old calling out “That could never happen!” and then proceeding to explain the flaws in the physics to an actively disinterested audience of siblings. My distaste for TV goes way back, and is evidently mutual.
At least a first, I wasn’t being the pedantic smart Alec I have since often become. It really bothered me that people would say things that weren’t true. As a kid, I figured grownups knew better than that, that there was something wrong if they didn’t get what seemed like basic stuff right – and wouldn’t everybody want to know the right answer?
Star Trek was perfect for my 8 year-old self, and, in a happy confluence, totally captured my oldest brother’s imagination as well. He would grab the TV (a huge wooden box, as they all were back then – he was a strong young man) and move it from the well-lit living room into a middle bedroom where the curtains could be drawn and a theater-like darkness imposed. He’d pop up a ton of popcorn, and we all – like, 6 or 7 kids – would pile in onto the bunk beds and floor to watch. We’d ooh and aah at every cheesy special effect, and ponder deeply every moral dilemma.
It was great. I was very happy that the writers bothered to explain things, even if their explanations tended to be kind of weak.** You could travel between the stars because you had warp drive, and could go faster than light! Alien species were alien because they evolved on other planets (even if all they evolved were latex ridges). Transporters were (and are) kind of silly, but I gave them a pass – everything else was too cool. Hey, I was 8.
Everything else on TV fell short of Star Trek. My intelligence was insulted by all the sitcoms, and, besides, I had learned to preemptively chase myself out of the room anyway. I doubt I ever caught a full episode of Bewitched or I Dream of Genie or the Beverly Hillbillies, although I do seem to inexplicably remember a couple episodes of Gilligan’s Island. I know the characters, sort of, and the major recurring plot elements. (Will Gilligan ever get off that island? Will the neighbors ever prove Samantha is a witch? Will that greedy banker manage to keep the Clampetts as customers? Gripping drama, no doubt.) The Addams Family and Rocky and Bullwinkle were good (puns and goofiness, you know), and I could sit through other cartoons. I seemed to be the only one who noticed that Fred Flintstone’s character changed dramatically from episode to episode – sometimes, he was a hopeless klutz, other times, he could do extraordinary things like quarterback a football team; he was the star quarry man one time, and a borderline gonna-get-fired goof-off the next. I think, even back then, I knew that was cheating, and found it repellent.
As I got older, I was also trying to piece together how people were supposed to act. It seems I’m just interested in other things and tended to be absent-minded about people. What constituted a proper reaction in a more complex interpersonal situation didn’t seem obvious to me as a child – not that I would have been clear enough to put it that way. So, that became part of what would bug me about TV as well – when characters over or under reacted, I was bugged when it didn’t match whatever theory I’d concocted. ***
Here’s the thing: from the earliest ages I can remember, I was an outsider doing my own thing, with only intermittent and fragile connections to whatever everybody else was doing. I wasn’t good at anything anybody else in the neighborhood cared about, and the things I cared about, while not discouraged, didn’t get much positive feedback, either. I lived in my own head, which was a rich enough environment that I didn’t cause any trouble – I wasn’t surly or difficult, I didn’t skip school (just the homework), I didn’t make demands on my mom and dad (Mom’s default answer to any question was ‘no’ – this was so ingrained that we just never asked for stuff. She got over it, more or less, once dad’s business took off. By that time, all but the last 3 of us were out of the house – my older siblings never got to know the mom who would actually OK their plans once in a while.)
So, back to thinking and writing and reading. I never thought about it much, but it was pretty clear that the world of ideas had little if any intersection with the rest of the world – the real world, as it were. In the real world, men made things out of steel, and showed up on time and didn’t whine. They didn’t have time for all that frou-frou intellectual stuff. School was necessary so that you could get a good job where you wouldn’t have to work yourself to death like dad was doing. The good life (and it was good!) was getting to take a one week vacation to the mountains or the beach once a year.
How I ever decided to go to St. John’s College and study Great Books coming out of that world, I’ll never know, but it probably saved my life and soul, even with the decadent college life I was utterly unprepared for.
* The best friend of my 10 years older sister, who was pretty and nice, would often take a minute when she came over to ask me what I was interested in – I’d tell her, and she’d be very impressed, and make me feel special. I am grateful to her for that to this day.
** The scene in Galaxy Quest where Tech Sergeant Chen manages to say “And we might be able to get there if we reconfigure the solar matrix in parallel for endothermic propulsion” cracks me up every time.
*** I got a minor comeuppance when I walked through the room while my older sister was watching a soap opera. I watched long enough to catch that week’s utterly irrational betrayal, and opined: “That could never happen! Real people aren’t that stupid!” My sister very seriously said: “Oh, yes they are.” How right she proved to be!