It began with picking up a used copy of The Gunslinger in Dave’s Olde Book Shop in Manhattan Beach all those years ago. Cool title. Cool cover. Or maybe it really began the first time I saw the boring-but-since-it-was-Stephen-King creepy cover of Misery. It could even have truly started with the It cover that used to scare the crap out of me as a kid, but at a critical point in my reading life, after experiencing just the covers of Stephen King‘s books like they were billboards on the literary superhighway, I made the conscious choice to start reading what was inside.
Unfortunately, I didn’t put off reading King for so many years because I didn’t like the genre or anything like that. No, that would be forgivable. My reason for not reading King for so many years was because I had the misguided belief that somehow his books were a waste of time to read. That somehow, I only had so many hours of reading I could get done in my life and the pop culture / suspense-style of King I had always assumed he’d written just wasn’t important enough for me to read.
I was, after all, on the career path to becoming a writer. And not just a regular writer, but in my lofty, idealistic twenty-two-year-old head I was going to write super important works that were amazing and transformative and genre defining… Never mind that I didn’t know which genre or really cared at all about being transformative or the fact that I typically didn’t like those kinds of books… I was going to do it because I was sooooo good. And with that mentality, what could I learn from reading a mainstream, mass-market paperback, word assembly line like King?
Man. Everything, actually.
But back then I didn’t know a damn thing because for a brief moment in my post-college days as a reader, I can frankly admit now that I took my literary decisions far too seriously, often veering into full-on reading jackassery. I can clearly remember myself saying insufferable things like, “the book is better” to almost any movie that was first a book, even if I hadn’t read the book or seen the movie, and I said stuff like “he’s a writer not a novelist” to anyone who said they liked James Patterson or John Grisham or whatever… Because I was forcing myself to plow through Ulysses at the time and James Joyce was supposed to be untouchable in the pantheon of wordsmiths (he is, by the way, but at the time I was pretending to like his writing and wanting to like his writing rather than actually liking his writing).
Of course, it was all a lie. I grew up reading all of James Patterson’s Alex Cross books (the movies weren’t better) and most of Grisham’s and Michael Crichton’s and one of the reasons I fell in love with reading detective stories was because my grandfather gave me all of his Spenser novels written by Robert B. Parker and I’d read each one in one or two sittings in middle school… Then I moved on to Elmore Leonard and others…
It wasn’t like my first favorite book was A Confederacy of Dunces, though I probably lied at the time and said it was, even though it took me two full tries to get through it and yes, it’s brilliant, but dude, you have to really work for it.
But nevertheless, at 23 I decided to turn my nose up at popular fiction and the sports biographies and sports non-fiction stories and history biographies I loved and stick to the important classics and whatever other books were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes and basically anything that I deemed “not dumb”.
I think I only acted this way for one summer, thankfully. But looking back, it was the worst reading period of my life. I forced myself to read and finish so many books that I flat out did not enjoy. And in some perverse way I felt like as long as I was not enjoying the right books it was fine; like better to hate an esteemed piece of literature and be seen reading it than to thoroughly enjoy a bestseller or biography or cool piece of non-fiction.
Moby Dick. Compelling. Legendary. Unreadable.
Crime and Punishment. Genius. World renowned. Snoozefest.
Wuthering Heights. No. Thank. You.
And look, to each his own. I know people love these books. And I admired the writing and the skill… But whether the story was dated or the style didn’t suit me or I just didn’t care about the subject I couldn’t bring myself to get into any of them.
It wasn’t all bad. I did finally read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as an adult, and it was extraordinary. Hemingway was every bit the towering literary stud I’d always heard he was. His books spoke to me… But for every Huck or Old Man I read I suffered through three Oliver Twists… I liked Twist, in fact, I just lost interest halfway through. Which is what I found happening all the time with a certain kind of book. The “heavy, serious, have something important to say” books.
Then came The Gunslinger.
I used to stop into Dave’s Olde Book Shop a lot because I had no money and I could pick up fairly recent used books for under $5. Sometimes two or three if I got lucky.
After struggling through a book by a Bronte sister or Russian master, I walked in one day and for the 40th time went right past the popular books in the front to the now-dreaded “classics” section. A copy of Gunslinger sat in the same spot on the same shelf forever but for some reason that day it wasn’t there. I stopped to look for it and I found myself annoyed that it was gone. Did someone buy it? Finally?
Then I realized it was just turned around. The back cover was facing me. So I picked it up. And read it. And I was hooked.
The scope. The subject. The ‘slinger.
And in that moment I threw away all of my lofty ideas about tackling the supposed greatest books in history and decided to simply tackle one book that looked like a good time.
Holy shit am I glad I did.
The Gunslinger was a bolt of lightning compared to the barely-lit match of my dark, dreary reading at the time.
The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
C’mon. What a start to a book! Who is the Man in Black? Who is the gunslinger? Why are they in a desert? Why is the Man in Black being chased?
This was better to me than, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. What does that even mean, really? Isn’t that true of pretty much every time or era? Right now? Today? Tomorrow?
Those twelve words at the start of The Gunslinger pulled me out of my reading funk. They reminded me why I liked reading in the first place. They reminded me that reading could and should be exciting. They reminded me that the classics that I naturally enjoyed were of the Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island variety.
That I loved smart-ass characters and clever banter and action and intrigue and mystery and suspense.
They reminded me that I had to care about a character, that I had to be invested in him or her to actually want to finish a book and to furthermore, truly enjoy it.
They reminded me that books could really be page turners in the best sense of the word.
But most importantly, those words reminded me that reading, and in turn writing, is an activity to be enjoyed, regardless of the genre or whether it’s considered high brow or low brow or whatever. All “brow” is acceptable if you enjoy it. It’s a false construct anyway. If you enjoy a book that’s all that matters. Reading is reading.
I’ve written about why I love reading history books here and my love for sports books here, but King’s books like Lisey’s Story and Under the Dome are among the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Glad I got my head out of my ass in time to enjoy them.
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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene and more. His books have been endorsed by everyone from Mark Cuban and Tony Dungy to Spike Lee, Kevin Durant and Chef Robert Irvine. He has written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and has appeared on CBS: This Morning, Good Morning Texas, and hundreds of radio shows, podcasts and streams.