How I Learned To Read
I was on a temporary two-week tour with the post office during the Christmas crunch when I entered Mr. Stanley’s bookshop for the first time. Rows of homemade pine shelves crammed with books towered over more books spilling out of cardboard cartons stacked on the linoleum floor. The “checkout” was an old oak desk with a manual black Underwood typewriter mounted on a built-in tray and a marble-topped cash register that had “No Sale” in its window.
When I walked in, I was greeted with the smell of dust mixed with the mellow, dry-corn fragrance of old books. Then came the aroma of freshly brewed tea as I watched the old bookseller come into the shop from his connecting three-room flat. Balancing two large mugs of hot tea in one hand, this survivor of Depression-era polio maneuvered through the maze of cartons with a sailor’s rocking gait, shifting his weight between his cane and a scarred leather block of a shoe that evened out his right leg. Sharing a cup of tea with his regular mail carrier was a ritual with Mr. Stanley, but this day he would share it with me, changing my life forever.
Almost a decade earlier, while still a boy of thirteen, I had taken what I could carry in a small brown suitcase and headed for the nearest highway, escaping a world where a father’s lessons were taught with fists. During the years that followed, I’d hitched around the country, lived for brief periods with a number of kind people, did a tour in the Marines, and worked the odd jobs of a young man who’d never graduated from a school. While I burned my daylight my peers back home graduated high school, perhaps college, and started families. Awaiting me after the holidays was another job in another warehouse.
In Mr. Stanley’s mail was a magazine for writers. I had no idea that such a magazine existed, and I asked him if he was a writer. He said that perhaps in time he would be and that his true love was poetry. I told him I’d had thoughts of being a writer myself someday, and Mr. Stanley, his face lighting up, eagerly invited me to come and see him when I had time.
For several days I drank my tea and ate my lunch in the Amphora Bookshop, listening to Mr. Stanley’s stories and sometimes a poem or two, telling him some of my adventures while on the road. At the time, I could read enough to get by, but my reading level was far below that of an adult. This came up during one of our sessions, when Mr. Stanley said, “You know, Chris, you remind me of my good friend Jack London.” (I would soon learn that Mr. Stanley always spoke of writers as his good friends.)
I’d never heard the name before, and I told Mr. Stanley I’d be glad to meet his friend when he came into the shop. Mr. Stanley laughed, took a book from the barrister bookcase directly behind him, and handed it to me. “This is Jack London,” he told me. Then he asked me to open the book to the first page and read out loud London’s description of a sailor caught out of his element in the house of a wealthy and educated family.
As I stumbled over the words, Mr. Stanley cleared his throat and finally stopped me. “You don’t read very well, do you?” he said and reached across the desk to lift the book out of my hands. “And you want to be a writer?”
I felt my face flush; I didn’t answer.
“You really don’t know who Jack London is?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Rudyard Kipling?” Again I shook my head. “I guess I never had much time to read books.”
The old bookseller was quiet for a few moments, and then he took a huge, shuddering sigh of air. “Well, then,” he said, “we’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”
Mr. Stanley offered to teach me to read properly and to educate me. Then, he told me, if I had something to say, I might become a writer. In return I would help him get his shop in order and run it a couple evenings a week and some Saturdays. It was an offer I could not refuse, and we started that night. Because I was drawn to the sea, Mr. Stanley began my lessons with illustrated books about the ocean and ships. Then we moved on to the first “real” book we would read together: Rachael Carson’s The Sea Around Us.
Over the next three years, I met many of Mr. Stanley’s friends: London (the book Mr. Stanley had handed me that day was Martin Eden), Steinbeck, Blanding, Service, Conrad, Kipling, Maugham, MacInnis, Plath, Oates, Kumin, Fleming, Cheever, Mailer, Welty, Vonnegut (many moons later I would receive a nice letter from the latter about my book, Mississippi Odyssey, welcoming me to the family of writers). And through the pages of a set of books known as The Harvard Classics, Mr. Stanley introduced me to Plato, Socrates, Dante, Whitman, Browning. Then he threw in Sir Herbert Read's book, To Hell With Culture.
It was the days of wine and white fish and cheddar and of midnight hours filled with lectures and debates, which planted the seeds for the articles and stories I would later write. It was the greatest adventure of my life.
With the help of Mr. Stanley’s books, I also taught myself photography and still work as a freelance photographer to buy my writing time. Mr. Stanley lived to see me publish, and to critique my work and to teach some more. Then, when I thought I was ready, I began work on a novel, autobiographical, of course. While working up my notes and outlining experiences long buried, memories rose up like banshees not angels. Fear and anger and resentment threatened to derail me, and I told Mr. Stanley I’d have to get on the road awhile to shake off the demons.
I went to the Mississippi River with my camera and hitchhiked boat rides on the river and then spent time hitching along its banks. In time, my first book, Mississippi Odyssey, was born. I could not wait to get “home” and tell Mr. Stanley. But when I got there, the shop was empty, had been for months. Mr. Stanley had passed away in his sleep surrounded by his “friends." Another friend and bookseller had settled Mr. Stanley’s matters and scattered his ashes in the sea. He gave me the Harvard Classics that Mr. Stanley had used to save me, the "Stanley High University" sign I had tacked over the armchair where I’d spent so many hours making so many authors my friends and a scrap book I’d never seen. It contained copies of the few articles I had published thus far as well as my first short story, "The Picture Maker," which was published years later in Modern Short Stories. Written on the cover in Mr. Stanley’s broad script were the words, “My friend, Chris Markham.”
(Mr. Stanley is always with me when I write. I begin each first draft with the words, "Hey, Mr. Stanley, did you hear the story about . . .)
–Chris J Markham