The Reading Life

By Garrison Keillor
Sunday, December 2, 2007

When I was 12, two things happened that made me a writer. I shoplifted a book of poems from a department store a few days before Christmas, and my cousin Roger drowned in Lake Minnetonka the week he graduated from high school in Minneapolis. He was 17, a quiet slender boy with a sweet smile. He had gone swimming off a boat with his girlfriend though he could not swim, and he paddled away from the boat, which must have seemed like a cool thing to do, and then he panicked and went down. At our house, my mother answered the phone, and I still can hear her voice -- "Oh no" -- and feel a cold tremor.

After Roger's funeral, she sent me to the YMCA in downtown Minneapolis for swimming lessons. Twenty boys showed up for the first lesson. We were marched down to the locker room in the basement and told to strip and take a cold shower and go to the pool. The place reeked of chlorine, and I had never been naked in public before. We slipped along the wet tile floor and sat down on the edge of the pool, as ordered by the instructor who told us not to put our feet into the water. This was very important. If a boy forgot and dangled his legs down, the instructor yelled, "What did I tell you? What did I just tell you?" It was cold and silent around the pool. The instructor seemed to believe that he could tell us how to swim and then we should be able to do it, and he strutted up and down watching boys struggle in the water and yelling at them. After three lessons I stopped going. I went to the library instead, which was a block away from the YMCA.

My family lived on 77th Avenue North, which was mostly truck farms back then, sweet corn and potatoes, and I rode my bike south on the West River Road and into the city along Washington Avenue, past a couple of lumberyards, a cooperage, the Franklin Dairy, numerous foundries and machine shops, auto salvage yards, a tannery, several large printing plants, and a wholesale meat warehouse where men wrestled whole beeves hung on hooks from an overhead rail out of the cold locker and onto delivery trucks. I turned onto Hennepin and pedaled past the movie palaces and the Alvin Theater, posters of bosomy burlesque queens out front, to the tall, brownstone castle of a library, and I leaned my bike against the wall and snuck inside. I didn't take the elevator for fear the lady operating it would ask me the purpose of my visit and I would stammer and turn pale, so I climbed the stairs past the Egyptian mummy on the third floor landing and headed for the children's room and the toasty smell of brand-new books. Picture books, adventure novels, all the books you could ever want and more. I plopped down and read them, one after the other. Nobody yelled at me, nobody told me to stop reading and sit with my feet up and not move.

That was my first big disobedience, and then the shoplifting was the second, when I made a deliberate choice to go my own way and to lie about it, and it changed my life. When you disobey, you are taking charge of your life and not relying on your superiors, and I made my choice: Instead of the swimming instructor, who was there to humiliate us and break us down and then rebuild us as tougher men, I chose to enter a privileged world (open to all) in which Twain, Stevenson, Thurber, Dickens and other strangers confide in you and tell you their stories. It is an amazement, how the voice of a person long dead can speak to you off a page as a living presence. Shakespeare hoped that his love would live on in the lines he wrote, and she does, truly. And she lives on in the poetry book that I found at Dayton's department store and loved so much I put it under my jacket and walked out, my little heart jumping around in my chest, and walked past the Salvation Army Santa dinging his bell, expecting a big hand to grab my shoulder and haul me off to jail.

I came to books as a refuge from a cold, clammy fate and as rebellion against cruel authority, which sticks with me now years later. It must be why I write comedy. To write a lament about a lonely trembling person walking amid a crowd of the uncomprehending would be to claim authority I don't want, the tyranny of self-pity. Better to play it for laughs.

All of storytelling is an opening of the heart, a search for intimacy with strangers. Intimacy is a necessity of life, and we would go insane without it. On planes and trains and long bus trips, in bars, coffee shops, it happens all the time: You sit next to someone you don't know, and a spark is struck and you wind up telling more about yourself than you ever told your parents or your sister.

A writer starts out trying to show off, but if you keep going, you learn a thing or two. One, that writing is less like Destiny and more like dentistry: You get up in the morning and go to work. And, second, the great pleasure of stories is to be of one mind with another human being, and to that end, it isn't so important whether I write the story or you write it and I read it, they are two sides of the same pleasure.

Years later I did send Dayton's a check for the book, and just last year I met Roger's girlfriend on a plane to New York -- she sat behind me and leaned forward and told me who she is. She is 70 now. I gave her my phone number and my e-mail address and asked her to please contact me. I wish she would. I want to hear her story. *

Garrison Keillor is host of the radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" as well as the author of more than a dozen books. The most recent novel in his Lake Wobegon series is "Pontoon."

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