By Jan Dynes
Books were the stepping stones of my life. They became each decade’s touch stones and they formed me. My choices were an education that allowed me to become and embrace being everything from a reigning queen to being a slave, angry militant, migrant farmer, Indian, rancher, geisha or part of a harem. Bound pages took me to sea, where I discovered new lands, survived or didn’t. I fought in multiple wars and witnessed the viciousness of religious persecution in the Spanish Inquisition and Hitler’s 3rd Reich. Through biographies I donned the cloaks of presidents, scientists, philosophers and political prisoners.
There was always the yin and yang of brutality vs decency, monsters and heroes. There was the Popes Ceiling to paint with Michelangelo and then a severed ear while caught up in the agony of yet another tortured artist. 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 oceans in both steerage and grand luxury, stuck icebergs and sunk but also was unsinkable and triumphed. Captain Quigg and Hook and more, bedeviled our crews and we became castaways too.
There have been passions, tragedies, orphanages, wagon trains and houses on the prairie. I have been in the gold rush, on a reservation preparing for a hunt, in deepest Africa observing gorillas and climbed the ice stairway in Skagway.
Lions, rhinos, hippos, tigers, kangaroos and pandas and elephants roamed my imagination too. I rode the Elephant in my Indian wedding garb, was frightened in África where the great mighty elephants terrorized small villages who had hunted their tusks and stood petrified while in the great Roman coliseum with gladiators who had to take lions on with bare hands while the crowds decided their fates with a thumb up or down. So many horses, wolves, dogs and other species of animals in great stories made us cry and exalt in their unwavering loyalty.
I began my literary journey early with Grimm’s 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 master sleuth, gobbling every book in the series. When those ran out of volumes, I became a Hardy Boy fan too and began my path as a 12 year old feminist.
Reading offered zero boundaries, I could be male or female, old or young, my ethnicity was ever changing and my religion and continent were totally fluid. Within the covers of books prejudice died and empathy grew.
At eleven I devoured Call of the Wild and White Fang and immersed myself in empathy for all wild animals and their harsh fight for survival and cried buckets for Old Yeller and Bambi’s mother too. These stories made me an animal advocate. That time in my formative years grew my heart 10 times and much later would actually lead me to Alaska to experience the wilds. Our reading matter can spur us to go experience so more and even fight for radical change. It is a powerful influence.
In junior high I developed 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 Victoria Holt and became a Victorian Governess in many castles and estates while simultaneously reading Jane Eyre and wandering the moors. Heathcliff and Mister Darcy caused much mental swooning as I learned to hunger and lust in the misty moors and keeps of old England, almost always unquenched and unrequited, fourteen year-olds love to drown in forbidden romance.
Next, I deep dove into Harold Robbins and the steamy and rancid underbelly of NYC orphans and those who grew up so desperate to just survive no matter the means they had to follow, and I experienced the Great Depression in the USA’s tawdry backstreets, through the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. These books introduced brothels, prostitution, incest and murder. As a teenager very heady stuff and a dark education. Like potato chips, one was only a start, I gobbled commercial trash and had to have more.
As I read on my choices got exotic and stole me away to the Outback and the Thorn birds, where Meggie wasted her life over a priest with more ambition than decency and followed his lofty ambitions to the Vatican. I went around the world in 80 days and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea with Jules Vern which morphed into travels to exotic lands to be a Geisha, ah, how my feet cramped as hers were broken and bound tightly. I was a harem girl storyteller as Shahrazad and I fought to stay alive for more Arabian Nights.
Books cracked open the whole world, space and beyond. Holding one could transport me anywhere to think and dream anything as anyone. It was a parallel universe to my real life and often seemed more worthy of emersion.
At 20 something came 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. While my children played in the pool, I sunk into my lawn chair and escaped reading.
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.
My nose was still stuck in books, but now Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and women’s rights joined my passion for civil rights. I wanted to change the world, I wanted equality from my MLK and Malcolm X period, to now extend to women’s causes, especially women of color that bridged both causes and crossed the line between. I wanted Native America rights and help for immigrants too. My world had grown so much broader than my living room or office.
These books brought about my inner activist for the sake of a better world for my children. The environment had me also climbing onto my soapbox as I was a PTA mom baking cupcakes and popping corn to raise school funds and then wearing my business suits off to work, building a career, raising a family, keeping a perfect house, making gourmet meals and having it all. The 70’s ad 80’s were about ascendance and everything except sleep. If I slept there was no time to read, so I turned pages till the book landed on my face at 4:23am.
My 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 ascension and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries showed me the path of a mercenary. While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jonathan Livingston Seagull led me down a philosophical path that encouraged me to dive back into Socrates and Aristotle, which I had skimmed without understanding in my youth and on to other popular books as well, like the Secret, because if Oprah suggested it, I read it!
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 total trash took me for leisurely strolls too. Nicolás Sparks was my new candy in my 40’s…who doesn’t love easy romance. I am embarrassed to say I also gorged on other desserts without much brain nutrition. Judith Kranz and even Jackie Collins led me to velvet boudoirs and sinful pleasures. The Story of O blew my mind and I hid it, never before now admitting I read it. My career and family took all my energy and books became a total escape and continued education.
Interspersed through all the years, so many great classics had given real substance that resided in me. I reveled in their words strung together like bright crystals and with poetic transcendence. Grand and classic authors, the ones who remain legendary forever had with great depth among the ‘frosted flakes and pablum’ of my popular reading materials, elevated my reading experience to unimaginable heights.
I wandered to Walden’s Pond and I trailed Moby Dick. I swash buckled with The Three Musketeers and attended parties with The Great Gatsby who excited me in ways I didn’t even understand. I endured the dustbowl and steeped in Steinbeck’s oh so broken heart of darkness and despair in a mass exodus, I was heavy in hopelessness. My painting was in an attic with Dorian Gray’s, where we would let our portraits age for us at the expense of our souls. I even started my own Glass Menagerie, I had two unicorns, a Pegasus, a dragonfly and a fairy. I lived for 4 days in a Doll’s House and dove into Lorna Doone with abandon.
Classics were the proteins and sustenance in my catalog of well-read riches, while popular and current were the French fries and milk shakes, and philosophy my springboard to deeper ponderings, biographies and histories an education and path to understanding myself and all humanity.
Books took me adventuring, educated, offered oasis, aroused, satisfied, made me question, protest, laugh and cry. They took me to so many places to be so many others. A book is an experiential odyssey without boundaries for the least expense of any other decadent exploration.
Shakespeare taught me about love, tragedy and greed and Dickens made me an orphan and a pickpocket. I was a devoted Anglophile and Forever Amber took me through the Black Plague and to the court of Charles the Second, where 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 made us cry deeply for all humanity and its failings. Some made us triumphant.
The histories of the Tudors would allow me entre to court where I followed Henry and his six wives. Anne Bolyn and her sister Mary’s story and then Anne’s decapitation broke my heart. While with Desiree, I enjoyed the French court, met and loved Napoleon, lost him to Josephine but went on to became Queen of Sweden.
I ate cake ironically with Marie Antoinette and saw the Narcissists Flourish in Louis the Sixteenths reign and then fall, so I accompanied them to the guillotine.
In my choices of books lay all of history and the ranges of greed, politics and forbidden sex. I watched the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Britain’s massive world domination, Greek odysseys and Egypt’s and Romes magnificence through Cleopatra’s eyes, Spanish colonization and discoveries in new worlds were the backstory for my birthplace in Florida and now to my home in Ecuador. Throughout so many novels Christianity had many flip flops and the Popes in the Vatican’s rules were ever-changing, fish on Fridays came and went. We rode Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code series trough the Vatican library and beyond. He popularized ancient mysteries and we were captivated.
India and Mahatma Gandi taught us sacrifice, the Dali Llama and Tibet’s fall enthralled, Napoleonic times and all the Kings and Queens of England entranced, the Romanovs assassinations and mystery regarding Anastasia’s possible survival made us question and we were fascinated by the Borgas. There were gargantuan falls from grace and popularity and blood spilled in the streets. There were some spectacular comeback stories too. North America broke with England and we rode with Paul Revere or waved a lantern to guide him. Then into our country’s adolescence and after a revolution, a violent Civil War ensued to tear a country in half and Shenandoah and North and South and finally Roots were devoured; I became ashamed, I was even white.
I discovered the Irish potato famine in my reading and realized being Irish was also the bottom rung in society and “Irish need not apply” for jobs in the promised land. I read of the Holocaust survivors coming to America and realized we had not been the heroes or very gracious. Throughout all time peoples have hated and feared, enslaved, betrayed and killed those who were different then themselves. Books show us that inhumanity while leading us to understanding diversity and its added difficulties. I endlessly wish we would heal and stop the prejudices. They never end well for anyone. Both reading and in real life, I realized that misdirected passions and prejudice could drive society to end or begin religions and start wars without any reasons, because of bigotry bullies attack different groups at different times with equal opportunity ‘cruelty’.
Immigrants always have to struggle, leaving their homes after riots and pogroms, 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. 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 Mandela to Malala. I walked in their skins, endured their pain and my empathy grew. The power of literature is immense as it opens our hearts and breeds empathy.
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.
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 giving for all writers for showing 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 parallel calling, a symbiotic need to experience each other. It is mystical and magical and it enriched my life from both sides.
Jan Dynes, the author of Refraction, Dottie’s Gift, Jamal’s Story, The River and Hear Our Voices moved to Cuenca on Easter four years ago and fell in love with the city and its people. She lives on a finca high upon a mountaintop, 25 minutes out of the city at 10,400 ft. She found her paradise above the clouds looking out over her beloved Cuenca which serves as her muse.