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Required reading

August 1, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

Coming from a family of readers, I was expected to be one too.

To that end, my programming started from the get-go. One of my earliest memories is my mother reading book after book after book to me, which in that pre-TV era was major entertainment.

But that changed once I got into school and learned to read on my own. Now that I was the big guy doing the reading, I'd read what I wanted to read. At least that was the theory the reality was a different thing altogether.

Essentially, I could read only what I was given. I can't remember any titles, nor do I have to, since they were all of the Life with Dick and Jane ilk. And lemme tell ya, even at that tender age, I thought if what Dick and Jane had was a life, they could keep it.

That was reading material in school, but the stuff in the library was hardly better. I mean, it was all written for KIDS too!

As a result I turned to the underground, which, to paraphrase Edgar Allen Poe in "The Purloined Letter," was hidden in plain sight. It was magazines. They were all over our house and I'm sure my mother never thought a kid would read them. But read them I did.

I can't remember all the magazines we subscribed to, but among them were Life, Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, Coronet, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and on and on. In addition, my mother bought the Sunday New York Times religiously.

I can't say I read all of them cover to cover, but I did read all of them in parts. And why wouldn't I? Compared to the pap I was ordered to read, this stuff was the real nitty gritty.

Going underground

For an adult, it was just standard fare, but for a little kid it was a portal into a world of intrigue, adventure, and the forbidden. Certainly they covered subjects not even obliquely referred to in school or at home, and in Life's case, it was often accompanied by graphic photos.

I still recall one Life "Photo of the Week" (which always took up the whole last page). It was a picture of a public beheading in China, done the good old-fashioned way - with a sword. It was supposed to be straightforward news, I guess, but its subtext came across even more clearly. It showed how barbaric the Celestials and their mode of capital punishment were, especially compared to our enlightened methods, like the gas chamber and electric chair - the best that modern technology had to offer.

Reader's Digest, with their drive to educate the ignorant and repressed, while at the same time not offending the most delicate sensibilities, was a virtual treasure trove of smut for the little Dope. I mean, features like, "I am Joe's Prostate," or "I am Jane's Breast," while nowhere near as good as the naturist magazines sold at the train station, were nonetheless heady fare indeed. Plus, Reader's Digest's jokes, although not dirty like the ones my friends and I told, were a lot funnier.

Those magazines sustained me through grade school. And Lord knows when it came to reading material I needed to be sustained, since by then my mother was trying to get me to read books written specifically for juveniles. Foremost among them were the Hardy Boys, a pair of smug, hopeless squares if ever there were any. My resistance to reading that crap was so virulent that my mother probably would've sent me to a psychologist, if a competent one could've been found.

Madness and machismo

Finally, in seventh grade I found my literary nirvana - Mad, and the men's magazines.

The first time I read Mad, I felt like I'd just walked into the world's greatest fun house. The writers and cartoonists goofed on everybody and everything, and did it brilliantly enough to make me laugh out loud.

Plus, for me Mad solved one of life's great mysteries: If adults controlled the world, why was it so screwed-up? The answer became apparent after only an issue or two. It was that adults, while much bigger and older than kids, were just as idiotic, inconsistent and incompetent. I can't tell you how much that insight has consoled me over the past 50 years.

The men's magazines provided a whole different service. They gave me a guided tour of Macholand and spared me the horrors of a life of fey sissy-ness. They, and perhaps they alone, can take the credit for my never playing the viola, wearing warm clothing in the winter, or going anywhere without a pocket knife.

The trinity of the men's magazines was True, Argosy and Saga. The content was the same among them, with articles such as "Escape from A Moroccan Prison Camp," "My Year Among The Cannibals," or "Freefalling From 50,000 FeetWithout A Parachute." The differences were stylistic. True was more literary; Saga (my favorite) was more lurid; Argosy was somewhere in between. But fine points of writing aside, all of them reeked of guts, grit and testosterone.

So Mad and the men's magazines gave me a save haven from the grotesqueries I was forced to read, such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and the Scarlet Letter.

Then my senior year, I underwent a great change. I found a copy of War and Peace and on a whim started to read it. And not only did I start to read it, but I finished it as well, enjoying it the whole time. Suddenly I realized, Hey, there are all kinds of books our there classics, even that I can read easily, and more important, I can enjoy!

From that moment on I became obsessed with reading, devouring everything I could lay my hands on European and American classic novels, contemporary American fiction, history, biography, short stories you name it and I read it.

Most of them I got from the library, but I started to buy my own as well, hoping to start my own collection. As a result (what with paperbacks costing a lordly 35 to 50 cents), I had to give up my magazine habit.

It was a sacrifice, but one I made knowingly and willingly. It also stood me in good stead in my college literature courses, since by the time I took them I'd already read most of the assigned books.

As a result, I got good grades and sometimes even the praise of my professors, both of which were thrills to me.

But as far as thrills went, you can rest assured they never even came close to reading such classics as "Death on the High Wire," "Knife Thrower's Apprentice," or "Across the Sahara - On Foot."



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