When I was a child, my mother was the women's page editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which meant that she was a very stylish woman. She wore high heels and a suit to work every day, and twice a year she put on a fashion show that was moderated by the likes of Dear Abby. For most of my childhood, she kept a tight rein on my fashion choices. My hair was neatly parted on the side and held by a single, simple, tortoise-shell barrette. I wore dresses (mostly navy blue or decorous plaid) to school, along with white ankle socks and Mary Janes. I had handsome wool coats with leggings for the winter, and my natural similarity to the "Peanuts" character Pig Pen was somehow held in check, although one cousin did remark superciliously one Christmas that I was "an exceedingly messy eater." No one bothered to disagree. When I was 11, my mother remarried, and when I was 12 and 14, my brother and sister were born. Perhaps the ensuing confusion explains how I managed to assert my own sense of "style" in eighth grade. At any rate, somehow I spent the most critical years of a girl's life with my socks slopping around my heels, my blouses half-untucked, my hair in my face and my face itself ornamented by white Harlequin glasses. In addition, puberty was transforming me almost visibly from the normal 12-year-old height of 5 feet to the unusual, you might even say freakish, 14-year-old height of 6 feet 2 inches. My mother was at her wits' end, but I was too oblivious to care.
I cared only about horses. I went to the barn every day after school from about 4:30 to about 6:30, and then all day Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the time I puzzled through my homework. Issues of personal style seemed remote and even impossible, since I was not recognizably a girl anymore, and very far from looking like or being a woman -- no breasts, no menstrual cycles, not even any acne. I was a strange transitional figure, a sort of unrecognizable juvenile insect, big, impossible to adorn, teased by the boys in my class and of no interest to the girls. I was also more or less lost in the clouds. I was always trying to push my hideous glasses up by wrinkling my nose, always peering here and there, trying to get with it somehow. My grades went down and I was dropped from honors sections. My parents declined to buy me a horse. We were moving into a new house. My dog was hit by the bus. There was that baby, and then was the news that there would be another baby. If I had been paying attention, I might have been really unhappy.
The new house, which my parents had built, was quite grand. It had a living room and a family room (with cherry-wood parquet floors), a kitchen with intercom, a breakfast nook, an entry foyer with slate floors, a sunken tile bathtub, five bedrooms, three acres, a decidedly upscale address. It was a considerable change from the two-bedroom apartment where my mother and I had recently lived, and I spent most of my time in the basement office, reading on the daybed with the other dog, the one who had not been killed, curled beside me. The basement office was quiet, private and chilly, and gave easy access to the working part of the basement, where I sometimes roller-skated around the piles of dirty laundry.
I had always been known in my family as a reader. "Lost in a book" was a phrase I thought they had coined for me alone. But the books I had lost myself in as a child were all series books, especially the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. There were also several horse series -- the Black Stallion, Silver Birch (about a troop of mounted Girl Scouts -- there was heaven for you), the Island Stallion. I read favorites over and over, not because I didn't know the stories, but because I wanted to live the lives in those books. Freddie and Flossie and Nan and Bert and Nancy and the others were only fantasy props for how I wished things were. I wasn't actually a reader.
Nor did it look like I was going to be. In seventh and eighth grade, I struggled through every book on our school reading list, more or less falling asleep. Typee, The Pearl, The Raft, "Julius Caesar," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Johnny Tremain. Worst of all were Oliver Twist and (ugh) Great Expectations. I laughed when Oliver asked for more porridge and was denied, and my response elicited moral disapproval from my teacher, which she expressed in front of the whole class. I didn't understand what the "work'us" was or what Fagin did or why a person would be called "the Artful Dodger." Magwitch was extremely off-putting, but not nearly as much as Miss Havisham, and why in the world Pip would allow himself to be treated badly by the unappealing Estella, whose likeness to several popular girls in my class was unmistakable, I couldn't imagine. Here were some books written in the 19th century, that could have had a lot of horses in them, and the author had passed up that opportunity. It was inexplicable, and reading them was a torture.
And then we got David Copperfield. Whatever you might say about Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, at least they were of almost normal length. If you kept up with your assigned nightly goal, you could finish the book in the two weeks allotted and do okay on those pop quizzes that were scheduled every other day. But David Copperfield was about 900 pages long, a profound temptation to procrastinate and then maybe commit suicide before the book was due. Instead of reading, I went in the family room and played the piano. The only song I knew was "Lorena," all about the sun being low down in the sky and the frost blooming where the flow'rs have been.
It was not that I didn't expect to enjoy my schoolwork. It was that I didn't expect to enjoy anything -- to feel comfortable at school, to fit in at home, to have my only passion (a horse of my own) satisfied. I expected always to be surprised by requirements I had not noticed, to incur anger or irritability from adults, to be in a fog, to not understand, to be uncomfortable in my clothes, to look wrong, to not like what were having for dinner, to be bored.
It was boredom, not the sense of impending doom (which I was accustomed to), that drove me to begin David Copperfield. When I woke up Saturday morning, it was raining and chilly, so I couldn't go riding. My interior-decorated room (white French Provincial furniture with pale blue trim) was a mess, as always. I picked up the big book and called the dog and sneaked down the stairs.The beginning did not portend well. It was clear that the mother was a sap and that the mother and Davey lived just the sort of single-parent family life that I had not particularly liked myself, though my mother was far from being a sap. Even so, the Murdstones offered some diversion. Jane Murdstone, with her snapping handbag, livened me up, and Mr. Murdstone was clearly the undesirable stepfather option compared with my stepfather, who was generous and good-humored. I was not conscious at the time of relating my own life to David's, but it was lunch time, and I was still reading. The dog went up the stairs and whined at the door. I followed, let him out and went back down. When my mother later called down to find out what I was doing, I could shout back with perfect truthfulness and virtue, "Homework!" Homework had absolute first priority in our house. I was interested enough, even in Little Em'ly and Ham, even in Peggotty and Barkis, who was "willin'." I was jogging along, happy enough in my reading, in a "might as well" state of mind.And then David escaped his factory job and set out into the countryside. Although his journey, by narrative necessity, was difficult and frightening, something about both the story and the author's style opened up for me right there. I cannot remember that day, that book, that part of the story, without an image of sunshine, and a boy walking into it, step by step. I had never been to England, so I had no impression of the Kent-ish countryside. I could not picture the scenes as Dickens did, but everything was vivid nonetheless. And then David was saved by Aunt Betsey Trotwood, a character who fascinated and delighted me, possibly because her manner was very much like that of my grandmother -- a little crisp on the outside, but deeply affectionate and benevolent underneath. The best thing about David Copperfield was that David didn't have to wait until the last minute to be saved. As soon as he got to Aunt Betsey, I knew everything was going to be all right. His later quandaries, his marriage to Dora and the machinations of Uriah Heep, were just about extras like success and happiness, not about the real issue of survival. One character who truly fascinated me was Mr. Dick, who kept writing, but was always frustrated because he couldn't keep King Charles's head out of his account, no matter what else he was writing about. Mr. Dick's simplicity and kindness were appealing to me, as well as his interesting relationship to Aunt Betsey -- she took care of him, and would always continue to do so, which was an image of great safety. What I pondered was why he couldn't keep King Charles's head out of his manuscript. I thought of it as a drawing of a severed head that kept appearing in the midst of the writing. Since then, that incomprehension on my part has been overlaid by the revelation of the profound truth of Dickens's observation that every writer is frustrated by the intrusion of his or her own fixations into his work -- Mr. Dick no more or less than Mr. Dickens, or me, for that matter.Sitting on the daybed, my back against the wall of the basement office, I could hear the usual thumps above my head that were evidence of the ongoing life of the household. I was studying, and they didn't bother me. I read for hours and hours. Perhaps I didn't go up for dinner Saturday evening -- I don't remember. Certainly I stayed up very late, and when I got up Sunday, I went straight to the basement and reproduced my quiet isolation. But, of course, I didn't feel lonely or isolated -- I felt in company with the bright and garrulous characters that Dickens had made up for me. I was not lost in a book as much as found in a book -- awake, alert, interested, happy, aware in the best possible way that I was turning pages and looking at print, but also creating images and pictures that existed simultaneously with the print. I finished the book around 6 Sunday evening. I was satisfied, happy and amazed at my accomplishment. Not only had I enjoyed myself, I had met my deadline, just like the untroubled A students. But more than that, I had that feeling all through me, that ineffable dreamy feeling of moving from one state of full consciousness to another, as if waking up. Since then, I have had that feeling many times -- not only as a result of reading. But there was something even more than that, and perhaps this is what defines that as my first experience of reading. I was aware that I had been in the presence of an author -- someone whose way of looking at things was different from mine. The series books I had always loved as a child had no idiosyncrasies of style that I recognized. Before David Copperfield, I had resented and resisted the very otherness of almost every author. But something about the generosity and kindness of that particular book won me over, and I was happy to be told and shown things in a way that was unfamiliar to me. I did not have much feeling for David himself, but I had grown very fond of Charles Dickens. I found him both interesting and trustworthy.My parents, of course, were glad I had buckled down and gotten my assignment done. They approved of Charles Dickens. I didn't try to communicate the joy of my two days in the basement. Nor, in the next few days, did I have much to say in class discussions. The teacher focused on Uriah Heep, whose lickspittle manner I didn't really understand, and Steerforth, whose seduction of Little Em'ly was rather beyond me, too. So my enjoyment continued to be my own, an extension of the delicious privacy that I had experienced all weekend.Other books collected, one by one, in that little private library of favorites: Giants in the Earth, by Ole Rolvaag, about Norwegian settlers in Minnesota; The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Crime and Punishment, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (especially "The Hound of the Baskervilles"), littered about with murder mysteries and horse books. Crime and Punishment, in particular, had a level of passion I had never seen before. But David Copperfield remained unique for me in its sunny complexity. It was a novel like no other, that expanded and expanded and seemed to promise that it was not just a book but an alternative world to our own, where more things existed side by side than could be expressed or remarked upon, and so could only be experienced.Junior high school ends for everyone, the universal American experience of the Inferno giving way to the comparative relief of high school Purgatorio and then, for the rest of your life, to those secondary issues of success and happiness. The works of Charles Dickens have continued to surprise me with delight upon every reading. I am, of course, not alone in this -- perhaps Dickens is second only to Shakespeare by now in the loyalty and respect that he inspires in readers. If my own authorial sensibility has a literary source, I am sure it is only in part the Bobbsey Twins.
Jane Smiley is a novelist and small-time breeder of thoroughbred horses in central California.