By Jan Dynes
Books were the stepping stones of my life, they became each decades touch stones and they formed me. My choices were an education that allowed me to become and embrace being everything from a queen or princess to being a slave, angry militant, migrant farmer or part of a harem.
Parchment took me to sea, where I discovered new lands, survived or didn’t múltiple wars and witnessed the viciousness of religious persecutions in the Spanish Inquisition and Hitler’s 3rd Reich.
There was always the yin and yang of brutality vs decency, monsters and heros.
There was the Popes Ceiling to paint with Michelangelo and a really vicious Pope to a severed ear while caught up in another tortured artist in The Agony and the Ecstasy.
There were concentration camps and witnessing both deaths and the stamina of the bold spirits who triumphed.
Between leather covers I sailed on Grand Cruises over many océans in both steerage and grand luxury, stuck icebergs and sunk but also was unsinkable and triumphed.
Captain Quigg, Hook and more bedeviled their crews and we became castaways too.
There have been passions, tragedies, orphanages and houses on the prairie. I have been in the gold rush and climbed the ice stairway in Skagway.
Lions and Elephants roamed my imagination. I rodé the Elephants in my Indian wedding, was frightened in África where the great Elephants destroyed villages who had hunted their tusks and stood petrified while in the great Roman coloseum with gladiators who had to take lions on with bare hands while the crowds decided their fates with a thum up or down.
So many horses and dogs and other species of animals in great stories made us cry and exalt their loyalty.
I began my journey early with Good-night Moon and Grimms fairy tales read to me, moved on as I could read myself to Nancy Drew books with Bess, George and Ned that I devoured as a child and so became a máster sleuth, gobbling every book in the series. When those ran out of volumes I became a Hardy Boy too and began my path as a 12 year old feminist.
Reading offered zero boundries, I could be male or female, old or young, my ethicticity was ever changing and my religión and continent fluid.
I also devoured Call of the Wild and White Fang and immersed myself in empathy for other wild animals and their harsh fight for survival and and watched Disney and cried for Old Yeller and Bambi. That time in my formative years grew my heart 10 times and much later would actually lead me to Alaska.
In Jr High came a bizarre serial killer fascination, with the Boston Strangler and In Cold Blood. Naive child that I was, I believed that they were misunderstood and could have been reasoned with. I was an innocent to real evil. Helter Skelter awoke me as to my own delusional thinking. Real evil did exist and I wouldn’t have wanted to have known it.
There is a fascination in the young teen mind with the supernatural too. Vampires and the occult creep in with witches and ghosts and there are plenty of options both popular and classic to indulge our curiosity.
In High School I discovered Vivtoría Holt and became a Victorian Governess in many castles and estates while simultaniously reading Jane Eyre and wandering the moors. Heathcliff and Mr Darcy caused much mental swooning as I learned to hunger and lust in the victorian way, almost always unquenched and unrequited.
Next I deep dove into Harold Robbins and the steamy and rancid underbelly of NYC orphans and those who grew up desperately to just survive no matter the means they had to follow, and I experienced the Great Depression, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. These books introduced brothels, prostitution, incest and murder. As a teenager heady stuff and a dark education. Like potato chips one was only a start. You had to have more!
My choices got exotic and stole me away to the Outback, Alice Springs and the Thornbirds followed by more lofty ambitions, around the world in 80 days or under the sea with Jules Vern which morphed into exotic lands, to be a Geisha or a harem girl storyteller to stay alive for more Arabian Nights.
Books cracked open the whole world, space, robots and beyond. Holding one could transport me anywhere to think and dream anything.
At 18, I went to the shallows and romance with Danielle Steele and the promises of eternal love, followed by deep losses and so many broken hearts. Barbara Taylor Bradford took it further and deeper as my young motherhood period began steeped in tapestries of women who survived and thrived, usually strong and alone at the end.
My idea of happily ever after morphed and was also confused through this period. I became an early 19th century suffragette in retrospect, while actually living in the 70’s with the rampant drug culture and free love that was being touted on the News and to which I was not indulgent, still stuck with my nose in a book by our pool raising my son.
My 30’s and 40’s brought me deep into history, all the wars and their whys and a yearning to internalize all kinds of races and religions and ideologies different then my own. The more I read, the more my heart hurt, and my need to be kind rose. The Book of Ruth, War and Peace, Julius Ceasar, Castro’s ascencion and Che Guiveras, Motorcycle Diaries showed me the path of a mercenary. While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jonathan Livingston Segull led me down a philosophy path that led me to Socrates as well as popular books like the Secret.
A library has so many detours and diversions and it is easy to get waylaid on any given path and jump from the depths to the shallows. I tried to stay in the deep end, but at times the warmth and ease of the trash took me too. Judith Krantz, John Grisham and Nicolás Sparks were my new candy in my 40’s and 50’s. I am embarrassed to say I wallowed a bit without much brain nutrition. My career took all my energy and the books were a total escape.
Interspursed through all the years some great classics had given real substance though. Rich authors of great depth among the ‘frosted flakes and pablum’ of my popular reading materials.
I wandered to Waldens Pond and I trailed Moby Dick. I swashbuckled with The Three Musketeers and The Great Gatsby excited me in ways I didn’t understand and I endured the dustbowl and steeped in Steinbecks sad heart of darkness, heavy in hopelessness. My painting was in an attic with Dorian Grey’s and I started my own Glass Managerie. Books took me exploring in so many places.
Shakespeare and Dickens made me an Anglaphile and Forever Amber took me through the Black Plague and to the court of Charles the Second, I even got an English Springer Spanial after reading that book. I learned about bringing out the Dead and plague boils from Amber St Clair.
With Anne Frank the rancid prejudice of Nazis in the streets and the black hearts of true evil in the concentration camps threatened by beliefs and Anne’s that men were essentially good.
Some novels make us cry deeply for all humanity and its failings.
The histories of the Tudors would allow me back to court to follow Henry and his six wives. Anne Bolyn and her sister Mary’s story and then Anne’s decapitatión which broke my heart. While with Desiree I also traveled to France met and loved Napoleon and became Queen of Sweden. Elizabeth the 1st and Mary Queen of Scots rivalry and relationship fascinated me. Each a fascinating and strong bloodthirsty royal.
I ate cake with Marie Antoinette and saw the Narcissists flourish in Louis the Sixteenths reign and fall, then I accompanied them to the guillotine.
In my choices of books lay all of history and the ranges of greed, polítics and forbidden sex. I watched the Rise and Fall of the Román Empire, Britians massive world dominatión, Greece and Egypts magnificence, Spanish colonizatión and discoveries in new worlds, Christianity had many flip flops and the Popes in the Vatican’s rules were ever-changing, fish on Fridays came and went.
India and Ghandi, the Dali Llama and Tibets fall enthralled, France’s Napoleónic times, the Romanov’s assasinations and the Anastasia possibilities, along with the Borgas and after so many falls there were some comebacks too. Juan Peron ousted, Evita’s missing corpse, they both made comebacks, an odd and twisted tale.
North America broke with England and we rodé with Paul Revere, then into our countries adolescence and a violent Civil War and Shenebdoh and North and South and finally I read Roots and became ashamed I was white!
I also discovered the Irish potato famine in my reading and realized being Irish was also the bottom rung and we Irish need not apply for jobs in the promised land.
Reading, I realized that passion and prejudice could drive society to end religions and start wars without any reason, it bullies different groups at different times with equal opportunity ‘cruelty’.
Immigrants always had to struggle, leaving their homes after pograms, war, prejudice, starvation and beyond any understanding they fled from the personal and selfish gains of the powerful who drove them out, to go to unwelcoming shores, all ever changing. These books shared the scars and humiliations of people from everywhere, in every language of all races, creeds and colors. So many biographies and novels of struggles from Mándela to Malala. I walked in their skins, endured their pain and my empathy grew. The power of literature is emmense as it opens our hearts.
The USA was not excempt from scrutiny either. We had our crisis of decency from the Native peoples we drove to near annihilation at the hands of the White man’s colonization and theft of their lands. The Last of the Mohicans was one of so many that echoed such cruety. So many great Western writers revealed the truths of our sins to all the Indigenous peoples.
Within all humans throughout literature, I both rejoiced and felt their quiet desperation…which taught me to feel mine more deeply.
Reading molded my empathy, begged my understanding and allowed the human condition a voice, from every time period, continent, and point of view.
Within the covers of pages and pages of words breathes all there is in the world to know and think and feel.
When a writer picks up a pen and bleeds on the parchment we become able to see through other eyes, times and philosophies.
Books have been my most precious guides and I would not be me without their teachings.
A huge thanks for all writers for showed us every event and emotion conceivable from every point of view through all different eyes and hearts.
They opened their veins and wrote with their blood and we are so much richer for every word we ever ingested that filled our hearts, minds and imagination.
Writers and readers are connected by both imagination and passion. They have a parrallel calling, a symbiotic need to experience each other. It is mystical and magical and it enriched my life from both sides.
I have never had a day in which I did not both read and write, so without a dime I am a very wealthy woman. Books are my riches.
Jan Dynes has lived in Ecuador 5 and a half years and is the author of Refraction. She lives above Cuenca in Chiquintad viewing the city with abundant passion. www.jandynes.com