Tuesday, August 2, 2011

That's the Best Kind of Reading

When my nephew Chapman was born in 1983, and he was the first “grandchild” in the family, the whole McDaniel clan acted like we were having a singular experience. We were "ga ga stupid" over him, and we treated him like royalty, the golden child, or the heir apparent.

On spring break of that year, my sister and I, who were both unmarried and getting to be classified pretty much as spinsters, decided to travel to Washington D.C.,where my brother and sister-in-law lived and where his royal highness was approaching the ripe old age of three months.

We couldn’t wait to see him as mother and daddy, who had been up to visit their first grand child soon after his birth, raved about every coo, diaper change, and semblance of brilliance that Sir Chapman possessed -- and he was full of charm. We were pretty sure nobody else's kid could be quite so wonderful or show such promise.

He was golden for us. A prize. A joy. A great blessing.

Chapman was the first we owned. He was more than adorable [he still is -- he's just big], and I had bought him an Atlanta Braves' Onesie that I couldn't wait to see him wear. Now, he's not nearly as cooperative.


Spring break was the second week of April in 1983. I was in my seventh year of teaching at Douglas County High School, and my sister, who was a hospital administrator in physical therapy, could pretty much choose when she wished to take vacation time.

We packed my sister’s red, 1970 Volkswagen Beetle and headed up Interstate 85. We made an overnight stop in North Carolina at my sister’s former roommate's house. I have vague memories of her house being on a dark, two lane road on the outskirts of a small town -- but I remember little about it except that we had a flat tire on that road, and a man and his son changed it for us.

And it didn’t help on that dark road with strange men showing up out of nowhere to help us that I was immersed in a Stephen King novel at the time of that trip --- a scary, realistic, believable Stephen King novel.

Why did I ever read Stephen King?

He was not my genre. Horror? Fantasy? Post-Apocalypse?

Hello. I read literature. What was I thinking?

In the winter of 1976, I student-taught 7th grade English at Troup Junior High School in Lagrange, Georgia. My seventh graders were hilarious, well-behaved kids who seem to enjoy my sense of humor but not my devotion to English grammar.

We diagrammed sentences, memorized verb tenses and lines of poetry, and wrote all kinds of paragraphs: narrative, expository, description, and persuasion. Since my supervising teacher went down with an appendicitis two weeks after I came on board, I spent the whole semester teaching her classes [for free!] and with no “real” adult in the room. I was 21 years old. Egads!

What were they thinking? Wait. What was I thinking? I didn't have a teaching certificate. It was like -- who cares? LOL

At Troup Junior High, one of my seventh graders, an avid reader, handed me the first Stephen King I had ever read --- Carrie, a book that seemed so contemporary, so real, except for the events, that I found it amazing that he could write a book that seemed so current. I took the book home that night and read it and returned it to her the next day. It was such head candy. I couldn't believe it.

I have always been a voracious reader -- my whole family was -- but I hadn’t read anything quite like Stephen King until then. I guess I was used to more “tested” novels -- the stuff of English majors and as a young reader -- biographies of Daniel Boone or Florence Nightingale --and as I grew older, the likes of James Michener, Leon Uris, or T. H. White. I had little experience with “best sellers.” In fact, I don’t even remember being aware that there was such a list.

As a child and young adult, I just went to the library, headed to the fiction section, looked at titles, pulled the book from the shelf, and read the blurb on the inside cover. If I wanted to read it, I checked it out. Simple. Direct.

One time, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was reading a novel that I had checked out of the library by Harold Robbins, a popular writer of the time. My daddy, who didn’t police what we read, looked at the cover of the book, read the blurb, and as he handed it back asked, “Do you like this book?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Okay.”

I don't want to think now of what he thought of my reading what essentially was "trash." He just let us all read.

The next Stephen King book I read after that was The Stand, that a fellow teacher at Douglas County loaned me. This teacher bought current titles like mad, read on all kinds of subjects, and willingly loaned them to me to read. He loved to talk about them and his range of interest ran the gamut: non-fiction, biographies [he loved the ones about old movie stars], novels, short story collections, and, yep, trash.

I took his hardback copy of The Stand with me on my trip to Washington D.C.

I don’t know if you have ever read The Stand by Stephen King, but here’s Wiki’s synopsis:

The novel is divided into three parts, or books. The first is titled "Captain Trips" and takes place over nineteen days, with the escape and spread of a human-made biological weapon, a superflu (influenza) virus known formally as "Project Blue" but most commonly as "Captain Trips" (among some other colloquialisms). While the base tries to shut down before any infected person can escape, a security malfunction allows a guard and his family to sneak out. Unfortunately, they are already infected, and release an epidemic, which quickly turns into a pandemic, that leads directly to the death of an estimated 99.4% of the world's human population.
King outlines the total breakdown and destruction of society through widespread violence, the failure of martial law to contain the outbreak, and eventually the death of virtually the entire population. The human toll is also dealt with, as the few survivors must care for their families and friends, dealing with confusion and grief as their loved ones succumb to the flu.

As my sister and I headed to Washington, I read The Stand in the front passenger seat. I hated it when it was my turn to drive. I was so engaged in it that my sister, who likes to talk, kept saying, “Quit reading that book and talk to me.” I read it on the trip up and on the trip back, and the realistic descriptions, contemporary places and time made me believe it was really happening -- so much that …

when we stopped for gas, I would get the creeps if a clerk or a fellow gaser at the next pump coughed or sneezed. When we toured around Washington DC., I looked out for the characters in the book as if they are real, washed my hands in every restroom we passed, and when we were in crowds, I tried to breathe behind my hand.

As I passed people, I speculated about whether they could be carriers.

LOL -- except then, it wasn’t that funny, and when I tried to tell my sister, a reader of romance novels, about it -- she was like, “why are you reading that? That’s horrible. Just quit reading it.”

BTW: She still doesn't understand my reading choices, and I still don't get hers.

But I couldn’t. I was scared, but I had to know what happened.

That feeling of getting lost in a book I hadn‘t had since I was a child.

The only other time I was that “deep” into a novel, with such a contemporary setting, was when I read in the late 1990s, Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders. That novel seemed so realistic that I would have to remind myself when I took breaks from reading [it was like 9,000 pages long, and I invested time in it like it was a part time job] that Jack Ryan was not president, Clinton was. I'd look around and orient myself and think, " That's right. Clinton. Yes. He's president." I’m actually still kind of shocked about Clinton, but he makes… never mind.

I used to immerse myself in reading. I would get so lost in it that when someone took me away from it, I would have to think -- “oh yeah. This is reality. I’m not Hester Prynne or Boo Radley or Conor Larkin or Scarlet O’Hara or Antonia Shimerda or Guenever.”

What an escape reading was to me -- and really still can be -- but I have to try harder because there are so many more distractions.


I liked it when books somehow captivated me, transferred me to some other place and time, or gave such depth of character that I believed they must be real -- even if they weren‘t my own time …

That’s the best kind of reading.


My nephew? He’s the best kind too, but we got over him pretty quickly --- as the family followed with seven more grandchildren.

Note to readers: I read a total of four Stephen King books -- Carrie, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and ½ of Pet Sematary. I put down Pet Sematary because one night as I was reading it, I decided I couldn't trust my cat, Kitty Moose, who seemed to be, well, staring at me differently. That's when I decided I was done with Stephen King.



  1. Hi Harriet: You really should read Stephen King's book on writing if you haven't yet. One of the best books on writing I have ever read. He tells about the time he actually threw "Carrie" in the trash and his wife fished it out and sent it in. Check it out sometime! Lori

  2. I have read three books in the past two weeks that have dealt with civil rights in the South in the 1960's...I responded to an email "oh lawd" today when someone told me something shocking.

    Reality is just so difficult to distinguish sometimes.

  3. I haven't read a single Stephen King, except for his memoir "On Writing," which was awesome. He cracked me up. But his typical books are way too scary for me -- I am a big fat scaredy cat. I saw Pet Semetary in COLLEGE and was completely wigged for weeks -- which drove my roommate nuts.

    Oh! I just noticed Lori mentioned "On Writing" in her comment, too. Now you have to read it, because we both recommended it.

  4. What was the purpose of diagraming those sentences anyway??? I sure remember doing my share, but for the life of me can't recal a time I've done it since or needed to??!!!!! :)

    Cathy McClure

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