R is for Reading

In 1962 I turned ten. For my birthday Joanie, the little girl next door, gave me a copy of R is for Rocket, a book by an author named Ray Bradbury. Like everyone, Joanie knew that rockets were the future, where people would blast off into the black velvet of space and have unbelievable adventures. She also knew I loved rockets. She knew nearly everything about me: we had been friends almost our whole lives.

Joanie and I moved together along the tracks of our childhood, which were laid out with yearly mileposts for first days of school, holidays, birthdays, and the vast empty green fields of summer vacation. Each slice of our lives lasted just short of forever.

I learned to read at an early age, and my mother partly credited the new medium of TV for this. Long before I started kindergarten I could recognize phrases such as New and Improved, Better Tasting, and the names of most major cigarette brands.

My favourite books were from Winston Science Fiction (no relation to the cigarette), a 1950s series for teenaged boys that featured novels by writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, and Raymond F. Jones, and colourful cover art that looked realistic and fantastical at the same time. Although I was several years younger than Winston’s target audience, I read some of these books a dozen times, memorizing their plots and dreaming of flying through outer space. In my mind, it was a given that I would grow up to be an astronaut.

I began reading my new birthday present as soon as I got it home. Unlike the realistic artwork on the covers of the Winston novels, this book had a stylized image of a rocket’s tail fins with a space traveller standing beside it. It opened with the introduction of a young man, named Chris like me, who was about to leave home to go off to rocket school. I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen to Chris as he made his way into the space corps.

The second chapter shifted settings. There was no mention of Chris, only a conversation between two people whose son is taking off on a spaceship that evening. I was confused. Chris didn’t have two parents in the first chapter, just a mother. The third chapter was set in a lighthouse, a story told by the young lighthouse keeper’s assistant as they are attacked by a sea monster. Well, I thought, the young man must be Chris, but what was he doing in a lighthouse? What had happened to his rocket career? Maybe he was stranded on some watery planet, like Venus.

By the time I got to the fourth chapter, a light was beginning to glow. I wasn’t reading just one story; each chapter was actually a totally different one. I would never find out what had happened to the young man who was supposed to be going to rocket school. I felt that Mr. Bradbury had been playing some kind of trick on me. What kind of author made me have to learn about new characters just when I was getting to know the old ones?

As I finished the seventh story, a time travel tale called A Sound of Thunder, I understood: each story was like a whole book, but with all the extra stuff taken out. It was as if the author had removed the vastness of space between the stars, leaving only the densely packed points of light.

Short stories, I figured out, are a view from a train window as you race by. No past or future; only what you see. They can end with an answer or a question. Or they can just end. Some people dislike them for this very reason; I came to cherish them because they gave stretching room to my mind.

And when I looked closer, I saw that the stories in R is for Rocket did have connections. They all appeared to be about people learning: how to handle new situations; how to deal with loss; how to survive when survival seems impossible. The simple title of the book hinted at the themes of the stories inside.

Do we really wish for one single melody to last all our lives? Is it only children who believe in such continuity, or do we carry this longing through to adulthood? Surely things like happiness, adventure, relationships, do not flow together in an unbroken stream but can flash by in disparate instances that exist for a moment and are gone. Even love would have a hard time making its case for absolute constancy. What if life is a succession of lessons to be absorbed by us, each one in its own time? Maybe at some point we will find the key to link them and assemble them into a coherent plot. Maybe not.

Shortly after Joanie gave me R is for Rocket, my parents told me that we were moving away. We were leaving our home to go and live in a sprawling ranch bungalow on a ravine, with a broad roof and fireplaces and lots of bathrooms and space to grow up in. I was devastated. I had been raised, taught, and protected by the community that surrounded me and everything I valued came from inside it. I did not want to leave.

But leave we did, and although in later years Joanie and I passed each other occasionally in the halls at high school, our childhood friendship did not survive. Like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope, we had fallen into new shapes and patterns. The quiet, controlled life she settled into would not have had room for me anyway. My adolescence was ragged, disappointing, and it led me down paths different from anything I could ever have imagined; unlike the fictional Chris, I never got to rocket school.

Joanie lived and worked in our old neighbourhood all her life. Unlike hers, my story would not read as a novel with one narrative arc, but as a landscape of plotlines and settings, each with new characters to learn: friends and lovers, heroes and villains.

My friendship with Joanie, which for a time was my whole life, is one strand of narrative somewhere in the cat’s cradle of stories that make up my collection. As childish and remote as that friendship is now, her birthday gift of Mr. Bradbury’s short stories opened a window for me that I continue to look through.

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