The Green -- And Read -- Balloon

Now that I’ve been on the road lecturing for forty years, I’ve discovered that after my presentation on Dickens, I can usually count on at least two questions being asked. Since my lecture credits Dickens with inventing the mass-market paperback book, the cliff hanger, and the soap opera, there is always someone who will politely but dubiously ask: “Can everything you said really be true?”

I’m always delighted with this question because it shows the innate optimism of my audience. Here is someone who seriously doubts that I’ve stayed within the broadest bounds of truth during the lecture; yet by asking this question, he or she implies that I shall now mend my lying ways and answer with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

My answer never varies: “I swear that 90% of the information I gave you on Dickens is absolute gospel.” And the other 10%, I add, is hardly a lie but rather my interpretation. The glory of literature, as opposed to math, is that, like our family and friends, there is always a mystery in it. Granted, I occasionally must plead guilty to stretching the truth. But as Mark Twain said: "To stretch the truth is a noble endeavor, for if it is indeed the truth, it always can stand the strain of being stretched."

The other question I’m asked is: “Where did you get your great love of Dickens?” The short answer would be: from a professor at UCLA where I did my PhD work. I was smart enough to find out during my first week as a graduate student which professor was the best teacher in the entire department. Her field just happened to be Dickens. I’m sure that if her field had been Colonial American Literature, I would now be leading a “Cotton Mather Club.” As this wise professor once told me, “There is no author so great whom a terrible teacher cannot ruin, nor is there any author so terrible that a great teacher cannot make fascinating."

But to me the most interesting question, which nobody ever asks, is: “Why do you love reading?” It is the love and respect for the written word which is ultimately more important than any particular author. And I am certain when my initial glee from reading began.

I was about eight years old. Every summer my father promised me one trip to Riverside Amusement Park in Indianapolis, where I grew up. It was the highlight of my entire year. As soon as we entered the park that summer, I spotted a young man selling helium balloons. I begged for one, and Dad agreed. I selected an emerald green balloon, for it was then and has remained my favorite color. Dad warned me to hold very tightly to the string or else the balloon would float away.

With the peculiar logic of an eight-year-old, I decided I’d let go of it for just a second so that I could enjoy the thrill of catching the string right before it was too late. Robert Browning said that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp — but not so with little boys. That balloon quickly exceeded not only my reach and my grasp but my father’s as well.

Up and up it flew, leaving behind one heartbroken little boy crying far below. Dad did not lecture me, nor did he buy me a replacement. Quite soon, the excitement of the rides made me feel better. But I did not forget about that balloon.

At breakfast the next morning, I asked sadly “Where do you think my balloon is now?” “Well, Elliot,” I can still hear my father say, “since the wind was blowing from the west, your balloon must now be over Ohio.” Where’s Ohio? Dad walked over to a bookshelf in our den, pulled down the “O” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, and showed me the colored map of Ohio. I’ll never forget the pale green color of the state with all the speckly large and small black dots which located the various Ohio cities. The memory, in fact, revives every time I eat mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

Dad then read to me all about Ohio, my balloon’s temporary home. I was intrigued. The next morning, of course, I asked about the location again and was told the balloon was over Pennsylvania. But where’s Pennsylvania? This time Dad took down the proper volume, but it was I who started — slowly — to read about my balloon’s latest home. By the time that balloon was over New Jersey, I had fallen in love with maps, geography, the encyclopedia, and — most especially — words. It is a wise father who can turn a minor disaster at an amusement park into the inspiration for an amusement that will last my entire life.

And sharing my essays with all of you during this confused COVID time is like having my buoyant, beautiful green balloon once again -- tugging to be launched into cyberspace directly to my cherished readers.

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