For me it was Tarzan of the Apes. I was eight years old, almost nine, and my sister ten when we found it at the Coles bookstore in the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. In the few months since we had come to Canada, my parents had been reading us The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines, and The Black Arrow. We loved those old adventure tales, but this was something new.
According to eBay seller dtacoll who is currently selling it for fifty bucks this is an “elusive” edition with a cover by George Gross (ever so slightly NSFW). Well, it sure wasn’t elusive in 1975. I remember my sister and I running to my dad and begging him to get it for us. We knew about Tarzan from comics, old black and white moves and from the rhyme about the monkey nuts and grapes, but the ape-man on this cover was more immediate, more real than any we had encountered before.
My dad, who had grown up on Burroughs novels, must have been delighted, though he pretended to hem and haw a bit before agreeing, and for the next few weeks, it became our night-time book. He followed it in time with The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan and The Son of Tarzan. Somewhere along the way, my sister lost interest; Tarzan of the Apes was not her gateway book. I think it might have been either Narnia or Green Gables that drew her in.
When she dropped out, I elected to start reading them on my own. Those were amazing days. Most of the Tarzan books were not available at our local bookstore. My dad would order them from the Classic Bookshop near his office downtown, and drop by every now and then to see if they had come in. I think it was around ten years old that I learned that Tuesday is new-book day; I’d make sure I got up early to have breakfast with my dad and remind him that Tarzan and the Foreign Legion or Tarzan the Magnificent was probably in by now. Then I’d be on tenterhooks all the way until he got home just before dinner. Even if the shop had gotten the book in and he had found the time to get over there on his lunch or before the place closed (early as the stores did then), my torture wasn’t over; I’d have only a precious few minutes to read before having to sit down and report on my day over dinner. With every bite I’d be dying to get back to the book I’d barely started.
I was hooked. Burroughs knew how to end chapters, how to switch between different point-of-view characters, how to make you want to stand up and cheer for the good guy, shake your head in disgust at the coward, and narrow your eyes with contempt for the villain. He knew how to skip the boring stuff and keep you constantly flipping pages, ignoring calls from downstairs and putting off homework.
After Tarzan, there was John Carter of Mars, and after that the Venus books, and every single crumb that Edgar Rice Burroughs had written, even his attempts at contemporary realism in The Efficiency Expert and The Girl from Farris’s. And I do mean attempts.
Next came a pretty well-trodden path. Teenage years spent with Bradbury and Beagle. University years discovering that none of that was supposed to be any good, and a resulting engrossment with Hemingway, Faulkner and all the people who were supposed to be good. Post-university years that led me to finally decide I didn’t care what was supposed to be the case. I like what I like.
It’s not that Tarzan of the Apes was the first book I ever read. In fact, as I said, I had it read to me, and in any case, I had read others before it. Reading was probably in my genes (or in my house). I might have been a reader no matter what, and I might even have chosen the same materials. After all, my childhood favourite TV shows were Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People long before Tarzan entered the picture.
It wasn’t even the best book I ever read. Let’s face it: those books were, after the first few, utterly predictable and are, despite Burroughs’ attempts at fairness and egalitarianism, sexist and at very best problematic on the issue of race. Truth to tell, as much as I owe to Edgar Rice Burroughs, I wouldn’t give those books to my own kids.
The point is, Tarzan was my gateway. A student of mine recently got in trouble in another class for reading the newest Ranger’s Apprentice book. “But sir,” he said to me when he told me the story, “I just can’t keep it closed.”
That was what the Tarzan books were for me, the ones I couldn’t keep closed.
So what was it for you? Not the first book you read, not your favourite one to have read to you, but the book that you couldn’t keep closed, the one that led you, step by step, to all the others.
What was your gateway book? I want to start some fun discussion on this, so I’m creating my first twitter tag: #mygatewaybook. Let’s see what they are. Give people a poke and ask them. No shame. It’s not a book recommendation thing, just a frank admission of what books got us started.
Oh, and PS: Yes, I still have that edition, and no, I’m not selling it for fifty bucks on eBay.