Learning to Be a Hero

The following words are those of reader Adam Smith.

I recently finished writing my first novel, and I’m hoping to publish it sometime this summer. This has been a long process for me. It’s stirred up a lot of thoughts about what made me even want to write a book in the first place, and I thought I’d write them down somewhere. Maybe folks will be interested in reading it, maybe they won’t.

“Reading,” my mother always said, “is so important.”

I knew she was serious, because the area around our local library was so dangerous. My mother taught us early to step over broken bottles or spatters of blood, to keep an eye out for used needles scattered around the sidewalks. She made sure we kept out of reach of the dozens of men sleeping on the stone benches. Once in a while, if you looked too close, you might see that one of the people sheltering against the wall of the library wasn’t breathing. Sometimes an ambulance would be parked on the grass, paramedics loading a person inside with no particular haste because there was nothing medicine could do for the person any longer.

Inside the library was paradise. The rows upon rows of free knowledge seemed holier to me than any church I’d ever attended. My family was so poor that we could not afford to buy books of our own and indeed I didn’t realize until much later that one could even own a book, but through the miracle of public funding for education I was able to partake of the written word just like the rich kids at my school. My mother was able to procure one canvas bag for us to share, bright purple, with a tear in one corner so that you had to balance all your books on one side to avoid them spilling out.

The library would let us check out three books on each card, and we maxed that out every time. We had to be careful to return them early because our family could not afford late fines. I got used to devouring every book as fast as I could, reading like I was starving for the words. I read books on every subject and in every genre, anything made of paper and ink that could teach me about a world beyond my neighborhood. In the afternoons in my bedroom I would get a flashlight and read under a thick blanket to block out the sirens, screeching tires, gunshots, and screaming from the convenience store a few hundred feet from our door. Through the words of Alan Dean Foster I learned that our world could be so much more than I had ever imagined. Through the words of Margaret Weis I learned that stories did not even need to be set in our world to teach us important lessons about love and courage.

The books at the library were well worn, without exception. I spent the first moments with any book smoothing out the folded or mangled pages. My parents couldn’t spare money for something as frivolous as a bookmark, so my mother taught me to fold down the edges of pages to mark my place. It seemed a sacrilege, and I hated doing it, so I made sure to read as many pages at once as I could to keep the folding to a minimum. Worse was when I would reach sections of the borrowed books where someone had torn out half a page or even several pages, and I had to guess what the author had said during the gap. Worst of all was when, at age 9, I came across a section of a book splattered with large amounts of what looked like dried blood. Of course I had seen blood before, the blood of strangers on sidewalks or, infrequently, smeared on walls in the city. Seeing it in one of my books was a shock. It was more blood than I’d ever seen before, blocking out whole paragraphs and drowning the words. I couldn’t keep reading it. I put the book back in our torn purple bag and washed my hands with soap and hot water for 15 minutes, trying to block out thoughts about just how much blood it had been. I lied to my mother and told her I’d finished it, that we needed to return it the next day. The librarians said that was the only copy available, so I was never able to finish the story.

One day, I made a startling discovery: the other kids at my school had clean books. I’d never noticed before, never imagining that anyone could have a book they didn’t get from the local library. The other kids used bookmarks, no dog-eared pages or creases or missing chunks. No blood. I had never been conscious of our poverty before that moment, but how it ached to realize that there was a wall between me and books of that quality. Clean books became my measure of wealth. I dreamed of a library of my own someday, agonizingly aware it could never happen but wishing all the same. My father worked like a dog for what little we had, sometimes six days a week, and then also every night on the weekends. We couldn’t afford cable channels, or to replace torn bags, or video games, or a computer. But all of that faded away when I went into my books, entering a world where poverty didn’t matter, only courage and love and fierce devotion to doing what was right. I may have been poor, I told myself, but I was learning to be a hero.

After my tenth birthday my mother went back to work, a small part time job she could do while we were at school. This extra money meant huge things for our family. Most important to me was when my mother told me I could buy my first book. The school had always circulated a small catalogue that the rich kids could order from, young adult books available at discount prices of $2.99. She knew how much I loved to look over the pages, imagining reading the books which were almost never available at our underfunded library. When she told me I could buy my first book, I could scarcely believe it. I hurriedly selected the first book of a series all the other kids had been talking about: The Animorphs. It took time to arrive, but when it did, I had my first book. The pages were clean, crisp, perfect. I treasured it like it was made of solid gold. Then my mother told me that we could probably afford one book every 3 months. I couldn’t believe it.

After one year I had four books, all from the same series, the Animorphs. My father spent some of his rare spare time (and, even more rare, spare money) to put up a bookshelf made of the cheapest wood we could find. The bookshelf was directly opposite my bedroom door so I could display my four books proudly to everyone who entered. My friends would come over and politely say nothing as I showed off what I believed was my own enormous wealth: four young adult novels on a cheap wooden shelf, bolted to laminate wall paneling, with gunshots and screaming outside in the streets. But the pages were clean, crisp, and unstained. I learned to cradle the books in my hand when I read them to prevent creasing of the spine.

As I grew up, my family gradually made more money. I got a job as early as I could and spend my first paychecks on armfuls of books. We were still poor but I discovered a used book store took good care of their novels, only writing a small price in pencil on the first page. I spent hours carefully erasing those pencil marks. I suppose that I imagined people would walk into my home someday and see a huge shelf full of these books and, pulling one down, check for a pencil mark. Seeing none, they would surely be astounded at my wealth, my success in life.

Public funding for those in poverty helped me go to community college, then a small university. I made more money with each job. And each time I spent more than was wise on new books. I eventually married my wife and she taught me to budget for books, being more selective in what deserved to go on our sagging shelves. She’s patient now after 9 years together, patient with the stacks of books everywhere on my side of the bed, divided into crooked, towering piles so that only I know the significance of their placement.

In the last month, I’ve finally succeeded in raising my family from poverty and into middle class, thanks to more than a decade of hard work to find my way into a profession. I pre-order books and they arrive clean and crisp and brand new, the newest books anyone could possibly own. I imagine my infant son will someday take clean, crisp pages for granted. He won’t know what it’s like to creep past the dead and dying to find the only copy of a worn book, only to have to stop reading halfway through because there’s just too much blood blotting out the words. That he can have clean books and can read them without having to block out screaming and gunshots outside his window, that is my measure of success.

Friends laugh when I wave my arms and rant against the evils of digital print, and they’re right to do so because that certainly creates new opportunities for authors and for readers. But clean books will always be my measure of wealth.

I’ve had some brief contact with other authors in the field. I get a thrill when authors like K.M. Weiland or Nick Cole or Brian Niemeier respond to my comments on their beautiful stories. It probably means nothing to them, but it means a great deal to me. Authors like these are towering figures who made the world come alive for a small boy who didn’t even realize what poverty meant, only that his books were never clean. And maybe, someday, when my book is finally published, I will be allowed to sit on the fringes of their great brotherhood, my own small contribution to the field filling a shelf in a dirty library somewhere just waiting for a small hand to pull it down and stuff it into a torn bag. I can’t imagine a greater honor than that.

I look forward to publishing my book. I hope to sell at least a few copies, but more than that, I hope that it can inspire other kids who grew up with an insatiable hunger for words to begin telling their own stories.

I’ll tag #amwriting and #amediting just in case anyone sees this and wants to share their similar story. I’m sure I’m not alone in this kind of experience.

Thanks for reading.

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  1. This is one of the reasons that we must strive to preserve the West. So human stories like this will not pass away.

    Thank you for posting, Brian.

    1. My pleasure. Thank you for reminding us that cultures die if they stop telling their story.

  2. Touching! And a great reminder of just how empowering literature can be - no *is*. Doesn't matter if it's YA or Space Opera or the Classics, or Poetry, or Plays. If it opens doors of the mind, it's worth doing. Thanks for the beautiful words.

    1. Direct all thanks to Adam. Glad you found his words meritorious.