Origin stories are fun. They are, of course, all about the myth of nurture, the idea that we become who we are because of signal experiences in our early lives that shape our future selves. Sometimes those “self-myths” are comforting to us, especially because they convince us that we’re not like everyone else, that we took the road less traveled, that those things that happened to us were important — that we have free will.
Super-hero origin stories most strongly rely on the Nietzschean idea of great trauma that tempers the noble soul: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Apparently, this was the one area in which old Friedrich was an optimist; the pessimist’s response is, “Everything kills you, Freddy old boy. Some things just take a little longer than others.”) But in any case, we are drawn in an origin story to see that when our parents or our uncle or our planet get killed, if we are strong, we can grow up, put tights on, and beat up people who disagree with us.
When regular folks make up origin stories, it’s not usually about such vicious trauma, but it’s still about great big experiences that, in our own personal narratives, have made us who we are today. The day we first visited the museum. The first time we took apart a watch. The idiot who said, “Girls can’t do that,” or “are you sure law school is for people like you?”
These stories are all about simplifying the confusing mess that is a life, and about denying the idea that, even without this or that magnified symbolic event, we might well have ended up here anyway. Another museum might have worked as well — or even a coffee-table book. If we hadn’t taken apart that watch, maybe we would have had a go at the dryer. And let’s face it — hateful attitudes probably abounded in the life of someone who chose to resist them and do something positive.
That said — of course I have one of those myths. I like to tell my students that I was bitten by a radioactive book when I was young (though perhaps for modern audiences, I should claim it was a genetically modified book — but, no, radioactive is the best metaphor, a book that glowed in the darkness of my childhood). I say that the one power it gave me was the ability to recommend the right books for people. Tell me the last two books you enjoyed, and I’ll tell you the next one you’ll love.
What I don’t often say is what the radioactive book was — mostly because it’s not one I would now recommend. I was eight years old when I found Tarzan of the Apes at our local bookstore. It was a cheap hardcover edition, Grosset & Dunlap with Tarzan heaving a huge rock at an onrushing gorilla. My sister and I begged my dad to buy it for us and read it to us after we were finished with King Solomon’s Mines.
With my suspicion of the mythical nature of origin stories, I guess I should acknowledge that if it hadn’t been Tarzan, it would have been something else — but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like my whole childhood was shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs. By twelve I had read every one of his books (some twice) — with the exception of a couple of hard-to-get ones. They weren’t always available at my local bookstore, so my dad would special-order them from one downtown near his work. I remember the days I would wait, dancing on thumbtacks until he got home — only to be disappointed because the store had been closed by the time he got to it or the order hadn’t come in. Then I discovered Bakka Books, Toronto’s longest-running spec-fic bookstore, replete with a well-stocked used section.
That was a revelation that led me both to the last three Burroughs books and to scads and scads more. More than thirty years after I first stepped in that store, my heart still quickens when I think of my trips downtown at thirteen and onwards and of the books I found, those thick red bags Bakka used back then that I took away, full of Bradbury, Le Guin, Wolfe and Asimov.
How could this not be my origin story? What else could have filled my veins with this insane, glow-in-the-dark poison that brought me here today?