Tuesday, June 19, 2018
June 19, 2018: Beach Reads: John Bellairs
[For this year’s installment of my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to revisit favorites from different stages of my life, all of which would make for fun additions to your summer bookbag. Share your nominations for Beach Reads for a crowd-sourced weekend post that doesn’t mind some sand between the pages!]
On the book that helped push me out of my comfort zone, both as a reader and as a thinker.
In yesterday’s post I highlighted what I would call the first genuine stage in this AmericanStudier’s evolution as a reader: finding those books that first spoke to me and shaped me in individual, specific, and enduring ways. It’s fair to say that they did so in part because they connected to nascent interests and passions that would remain central to my identity and perspective throughout my life—in the fantastic and related literary genres, in the case of David and the Phoenix; in mystery fiction, in the case of the Hardy Boys. That is, while those books certainly helped shape those particular interests as well as my overall identity, they did so in relatively comfortable ways; while such comfort is not at all a bad thing, and is probably necessary to making those initial connections with stories and books, I firmly believe it can and should be supplemented by some discomfort, by those works that compel us in part because they push us beyond the bounds of what we instinctively enjoy (while still entertaining and enriching us, that is—I’m not advocating for masochistic reading!).
For me, one of the first works to push me in that way was John Bellairs’ The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984). One of the early works in Bellairs’ Johnny Dixon series, Spell certainly shared some key features with both David and the Hardy Boys—a youthful protagonist who finds himself involved in a supernatural and mysterious situation—but with a couple of very significant differences, both captured by the book’s cover: that protagonist, Johnny, confronted the book’s villains and terrors on his own, both because of his status as an orphan and because the story’s plot involved his mentor figure going missing; and those threats were indeed terrifying, far more scary to this young adult reader than either the scientist villain in David or any of the Hardy’s antagonists. Spell kept me up at night in distinctly different ways than did those earlier books, which I simply wanted to keep reading into the wee hours; I felt somewhat the same about Bellairs’ book, but also didn’t want to stop reading because that would entail turning off the light and wondering if the Sorcerer’s Skull was lurking in the shadows in the corner of my room. That fear, it’s worth adding, paralleled very fully Johnny’s own emotions, making his journey mine in a way that was also distinct from my connections to the protagonists of my other early favorites.
That kind of empathetic connection is certainly one reason why Bellairs’ book impacted me the way it did, and why I’m highlighting it in a post in this series. But I’d still emphasize even more fully the effects of reading something that made me distinctly uncomfortable—not, again, in a painful way, but in terms of being unsettled, of experiencing unfamiliar sensations, of feeling emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually challenged by what I was reading. It’s certainly fair to say that such discomfort shouldn’t be our most central association with reading or with art in general—living in the world produces enough discomfort without consistently seeking it out in our artistic experiences! But it’s equally fair to say that our perspectives can’t grow and expand if we’re always comfortable, and that being challenged and pushed beyond what we have known and what we instinctively enjoy is one important and valuable way to become a more rounded and successful person within that world, within our communities, and in our own skin. Johnny Dixon and John Bellairs helped me do that from a young age, and despite—no, in conjunction with—those late-night shivers, I’ll always be grateful.
Next Beach Read tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Reads you’d nominate?