Book of a Lifetime
5 December 2010
London's Independent newspaper asked me to contribute this brief article to their regular column in which an author talks about a book that was important to them.
Book of a Lifetime
By Richard Zimler
I spotted my book of a lifetime while risking a foray into the dungeon-like basement of my childhood home in the New York suburbs. This would have been around 1965, when I was nine years old.
The front cover showed a robed horseman in a chariot being drawn across a blazing orange sky by four magnificent white horses. After rescuing the book from the surrounding clutter of decaying paperbacks, I started turning the pages, discovering a world of transcendence that seemed – oddly – to have been waiting for me for a long time. Successive illustrations showed a bearded god hurling lightning bolts, a woman transformed into spider, a snake-haired monster…
Back up in my room, behind my closed door (so as to avoid anyone else asking to share my treasure), I read all afternoon. Why was I so captivated? All I know is that the stories about gods and heroes that made up the text made me want to be able to fly, or turn into a centaur, or look down at my life from a mountaintop in the clouds. In short, they drew my imagination outward and made me want to live in a more exciting world. In fact, I was so eager to get there that not being able to do so gave me the dreadful feeling that I’d never be where I was meant to be. My home seemed hopelessly dull by comparison.
Now, more than forty years later, I still want to visit far-off worlds and live in a vibrant landscape of heightened color and drama. You wouldn’t have to be Freud to figure out that’s one of the reasons I write novels.
The book that I discovered in my basement was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire. Through it, I first learned about Zeus, Hera and all the other Greek gods and goddesses, as well about the heroic quests of mortal men and women.
The chariot rider on the cover turned out to be Phoebus Apollo, the Greek sun god. He and all the other figures are illustrated in a vaguely William Blake-like style – softly outlined and colored, with doe-like eyes.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths taught me about the power of storytelling and reinforced my love of reading. It led me straight to books on everything from Norse mythology to Egyptian hieroglyphics. When I went off to university, I studied comparative religion, largely because it gave me a chance to read the traditional stories of other cultures I hadn’t yet explored, as well as the writings of Mircea Eliade and other mythologists.
I’ve never stopped reading such tales, and today, they often seem like riddles to me – to contain insights and revelations written far below the surface of the words. And I’ve come to understand what I started to grasp in only a tingling, childlike way back in my basement netherworld in 1965: that myths are about the potential for transformation, courage, cowardice, sacrifice and love in each one of us.