"Perhaps you saw what place our universe plays in the scheme of things—an atom in a blade of grass."
Back near the end of February, I helped Nathan figure out how to use his library card to download audio books, so he could listen to stories while running and weight lifting. I gave him some suggestions of things he might like, but told him to search and see what spoke to him.
In the 80s, when I was a teenager, I was discovering books. I had always been a reader (I don’t think anyone who really knows me could separate reading from my identity) but in my teenage years my relationship with books changed. They weren’t just stories or a way of spending an afternoon in sunlight, or even a place where I went to find friends anymore. Reading, I was beginning to understand, was a way of saving myself. It was as if all the answers to all the questions had been scattered into all the books, and all I had then were questions and a world full of books at my feet.
I’ve been looking for answers—and finding them, often, in books—ever since.
My dad was a devoted fan of Stephen King and likely read almost everything he wrote (until his last illness took reading away from him). In those teenage years, I also loved Stephen King. I don’t know exactly when I read The Gunslinger. It was published in 1982, but I don’t think I read it when I was ten. My guess is I read it in 1987, when the sequel, The Drawing of the Three, was published. My dad bought the first two books, and what piqued my interest in reading them was listening to him chuckle to himself as he read Drawing. He liked to read lying on his side on the floor of our front room, with a cup of coffee for company. I asked him why he was laughing at a Stephen King book—as everything I’d read by him had been scary and I hadn’t noticed any humor—and he read me a little bit of the beginning, where the lobstrosities attack Roland. He wasn’t really laughing because of humor, he told me, but because he just admired King so much. “That man can write a story,” he said, and then sipped his coffee and went back to his book.
I read, and discussed with my dad, the first three books of The Dark Tower series. Even years later, sometimes he’d just say “did-a-cheek?” or some other lobstrosity sound at me, and we’d laugh just a little bit.
The Waste Lands, which was published in 1991, was probably one of the first fifty or so books I bought for myself. That was the year I was dating Kendell and trying to create my adult life. I was still living at home and there is another memory of my dad lying on the living-room floor, talking again about King’s genius, because in this book he managed to make a train into a malicious monster, and wouldn’t it be great if we could also have a billybumbler?
There was a long gap between the third and fourth books, and in that time, I changed. I got married, I had Haley, I went to college. By the time Wizard and Glass came out, in 1997, I was pregnant with Jake and in my last 18 months of my English degree, buried deep in critical literary theory, classic British novels, Greek mythology, and writing techniques. My dad bought the book, and handed it to me after he finished it, but I only read the introduction (which reacquainted me with the story at least) before setting it aside. Precocious little book snob that I was, I thought it would be a waste of time.
My dad continued on the journey with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, but I did not.
So when Nathan asked me “have you read it?”, all of these connections passed through me. Remembering how much I loved the first three books, and how ashamed of myself I am for not reading all of them with my dad, and how I’ve thought about rereading the series every time a new book has come out, but it didn’t feel like it would be the same. No one I know now would respond to “dad-a-chum?” with anything other than a blank stare. I told Nathan that, and he said “well, how about you read it with me this time then?” and I said “done!”
(He lost interest and didn’t finish the audio, but that is OK. One of the things I have learned from books is that some books must come to you at the right time, and sometimes your initial interest in a book doesn’t spark an actual affection, because the book isn’t the right one for you at that time.)
Rereading books that were pivotal to your younger self is sometimes a dangerous proposition. You might find them empty or shallow instead of brimming with knowledge and beauty. You bring a different self to the story; you know different things and have been changed by your experiences. You might be disappointed.
So I can say: I couldn’t read these first three books with the same innocence I had when I read them the first time. Parts of The Gunslinger were disturbing to me. I didn’t understand feminism or rape culture or the persistency of violence when I read it at fifteen. Did Roland rape Sylvia Pittston with his gun? Even if he is the protagonist and carrying on the noble tradition of eliminating evil that disguises itself as religion—I can’t forgive this scene, and it was so startling to me. How had I forgotten it? I also can’t decide: is his depiction of Detta Walker in Drawing racist? He spells it out that she is like a caricature of representations of black people, so he is using the imagery that white people have created about black people in a sort of sardonic way. But he also calls her (not the depictions) evil. (I cannot imagine anyone writing a character this way now.) She hates white people, but is also evil, so I don’t know how to balance that. And, over it all: this is a violent story. There is so much death.
On the other hand: I know so much more now than I did when I read these as a teenager. I didn’t understand the archetype of the hero’s journey, and the way quest novels influence our society. I hadn’t read Tolkien so I couldn’t be delighted at the way the story nods its head across the universe toward the fellowship. I know the lines of poetry that get slung slantwise. I recognize almost all of the songs that are referenced (although I had to look up “Velcro Fly”). I even can pick up some of the Easter eggs from other books.
Here’s what I didn’t expect, though.
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how we don’t always understand the impact of our choices. I am certain there are choices I’ve made that have altered my life in ways I will never completely understand, ever. It is easier to see how other choices altered my life. It’s like…maybe one day, seemingly at random, you decide to drive a different route to work. You still get to work and you move on with your life, but what you don’t know is that if you had taken your usual route, you would’ve been in a horrific car accident that left you missing your left leg. (Or whatever else you can imagine.) You never lived the life that could’ve been made by one random choice, so you don’t know that life, and you don’t even really know that you missed that life. Except sometimes I think you bump into it anyway. (In my head I also carry half-formed images of who I might’ve been if I had made different choices.) I bumped into this…this doubling of possible outcomes, I guess, several times as I read. Like Roland with his doubled memories of his story with Jake and without Jake, and the same for Jake with Roland. I couldn’t see, of course, so clearly as they can. But there is something of my alternate selves in these books, and I didn’t expect to find it there.
This concept forms the backbone of the story of The Dark Tower, at least so far as I have gotten. (I finished The Wastelands this morning.) The rose that Jake crouches next to in the abandoned lot in New York, and the suns inside: to me, all of the could-have-been lives are inside that rose. “It was a moment of passage,” Roland tells Jake. “A time such as must be at the Tower itself, when things come together and hold and make power in time.” Those moments of power in time are the choices we make, and we don’t always get to see clearly how they bind us.
Here’s another example. Remember, I was a wild, angry, rebellious teenager when I read these books. I was in a dark, dark place. Whenever I wanted, I could’ve jumped right in to doing whatever heavy drugs I could get my hands on. But I never did. I wonder about that a lot—in that rose full of the possible lives of Amy, there have got to be several addict versions of myself. And when I got to the chapters about Eddie when he was in his junkie days, it hit me. It was as if the person I had been reading that book—this exact copy of this book, the one I held in my 15-year-old hands—left an annotation. I clearly remembered feeling what I felt as that version of myself: a deep aversion to becoming like Eddie, to having a monkey, to being taken to awful places and terrifying experiences and the thread of jail because of drugs.
It might be too much to claim, but reading it I felt it anyway: Partly I’m not a drug addict because of Eddie Dean.
(Or, to be more specific: because I decided to read the book that had Eddie Dean in it. If I didn’t chose to read it, Eddie Dean never existed for me. It is the choice that matters the most.)
And o how I wish my dad was here so we could talk that idea out. He would understand.
So, today: I finished The Wastelands. I can’t believe how long I have left Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy riding on Blaine, starting their riddle competition. I still have mixed feelings. I still feel like I am reading something that is not quite my style, even if the metaphysical, layers-of-time concepts resonate. When I’ve mentioned my rereading to other people online, some have warned me that I will be disappointed by the ending, and some have promised me I will love the rest of the books. So I am expecting nothing, just picking up what I left off more than twenty years ago. These books—as with many others that have changed me in some way—are much like the doors that appear over and over within their pages. There was a drawing of myself, between one world and another, when I started the story so long ago. Maybe the rest of it will only be a story, just a thing I read during a quarantine. Maybe a new, altered version of myself will be drawn along the way, into some subtly-altered life I didn’t know I could find a door to. Either is fine with me, because I swear: there’s a little bit of my dad, peering over my shoulder, reading along with me.
There are other worlds than these.