My First Pet will be a Squirrel Named Nutkin

"I first read this book {the Charterhouse of Parma} in 1972. When I looked at the passages I had underlined and the notes I had written in the margins on that first reading, I laughed, a sad laugh at my youthful enthusiasm. But I still felt affection for the young man who had picked up this book then and who, to open his mind to a new world and to become a better person, had read it so eagerly. I preferred that optimistic and still half-formed young man, who thought he could see everything, to the reader I've become. So whenever I sat down to read the book, we were a crowd: my twenty-year-old self, my confident Stendhal, his heroes, and me. I liked this crowd."

--Orham Pamuk, "The Pleasures of Reading" (from the collection, Other Colors)

I'm finally in a writing class that excites me. It's a short story workshop with a professor whose work I admire. For our first assignment, we have been asked to recall the first book that had this same impact on us; that mixture of innocent pleasure and the pretense of understanding everything.

The pressure in any writing program is to give the impression that one is well-read, that the power of literary analysis came at a young age and has stuck indefinitely. However, I've never been one to read a writer simply because he or she has won prizes, or belongs to a certain "canon of literature." I've got the same zeal for Little Women or as I do the dozens of graphic novels that now sprawl across my floor. My relationship with reading has ebbed and flowed over the years; at times, books were a comfort, an escape; at others, they were homework, laborious assignments to be chopped into little pieces and over-analyzed in lengthy, pretentious papers. But every now and then I stumble across that one book that keeps me up at night, not because I'm dying to understand the author's use of perspective or the timing of the flashbacks, but because the story is one I want to know, memorize, and follow. Understanding itself is not as important; I admire the mystery of an author that doesn't explain, as frustrating as that may be.

But the book that had that impact...? I think of books from my childhood as pastoral paintings: beautiful, luscious things that made me want to go outside and explore. Beatrix Potter was my first obsession, hands down. I saved my allowance for weeks so I could buy the $42 illustrated story collection at the Discoveries store downtown. What was it about her work that captivated me? The stories were so short, so concise, so beautifully drawn, little parables that featured squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, birds.

I didn't care much for stories involving actual humans, or contemporary social issues; I was seven years old. I wanted to know where animals lived, and what they named their offspring. I wanted the creatures I saw outside to talk back to me, and they did in her books. Potter made me hungry to read; I wanted to know all about her, and the countryside where so many of her stories are set. I'll never forget the day I realized that my elementary school was founded in the same year she was born: 1866. At seven, eight, nine years old, squirrels and rabbits and hedgehogs were very much a part of my world, both factual and fictional. I wanted to read every word she wrote, and collected every version of her stories I could find. At one point, I even had a little Squirrel Nutkin bookshelf with a copy of Pierre Lapin and El Cuento de Pedro, el Conejo. It didn't matter that I didn't yet understand Spanish or French; the words were already emblazoned in my brain. It was the exercise of opening the pages, feeling the book's spine in my hands, and absorbing the story through color and emotion.

Are they stories I have returned to in time? To be honest, I haven't revisited my Potter collection in years. At one point I even bought a collection of the letters she wrote to her fans, for hopes of deciphering some writerly wisdom from her scrawling cursive. Going back now, I see her stories for their original purpose: creative ways to write letters. A carryover from her botanical illustrations, an expression of something quieter yet bigger than she was, a meditation on setting and character. Even now, writing these words, I feel like the asshole twentysomething that Pamuk describes, but that internal admiration and reverence for Potter--that hasn't gone away. In fact, it makes me wish I had one of those collections with me here in San Francisco, so I could curl up in bed and lose myself in the Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, the scary one about the dog that thinks she will be served in a mouse pie. What the hell, right? But that's just what I loved about Potter and her stories: the inconceivable was normal, because all of her protagonists were animals, and yet they had all the same fears and desires that I did at seven, ten, twelve, sixteen, and now twenty-five. I don't want to be cooked in anybody's patty-pan, literal or metaphoric.

Beatrix Potter was just the first in a series of literary obsessions, many which echoed similar themes of animals, the countryside, an old-fashioned sensibility that struck a chord somehow. There was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods series, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Sid Fleischman's Mr. Mysterious and Company (read that one five times, five summers in a row), Dick King-Smith's Babe and E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan. All lovely books written for children, all set long before I was born, many of them wonderfully illustrated. Nostalgia runs deep in these childhood classics, and yet somehow none of them possess that innate darkness that Beatrix Potter's tales did, that acknowledgment that with good fortune came the occasional random bad luck.

How wonderful it is to remember books that didn't require lengthy explanation, whose stories and character were left refreshingly alone because I simply trusted their existence on the page. Even now, the prospect of writing or (gulp) publishing a Potter-esque "tale" feels out of reach. The authenticity of intention, and the relationship between words and art--those are two things I have yet to learn.

Next time I'm at my parents' house, the first thing I'll do is grab my old $42 Potter anthology and go to the public park, nestle down in the grass, maybe under a family of squirrels, and remember what it means to truly read.