Sunday, July 11, 2010

Christopher Kennedy, On Reading

"When I was ten, the northeastern United States experienced 'the great blackout.' It was the peak of the Cold War. Everyone’s thoughts ran toward the notion of an attack by the Soviet Union. My mother got me out of bed. She said we were going to her friend’s house, a woman she worked with whose home, though modest, had a fireplace. I remember walking into the house, past a small table, toward the flames that illuminated the living room and gave off a comforting heat. On the table was a book. A paperback. Books were scarce in my home, and no book I’d ever seen had a cover image like this one: a man with a shield in one hand, a woman’s head in the other. He held the head by the hair. But this wasn’t a normal head of hair. It was made of snakes. I stopped and stared at the image of Perseus holding Medusa’s decapitated head, transfixed. My mother’s friend broke the spell by asking me if I’d like to look at the book. I said yes, picked it up, walked into the living room, and lay down in front of the fireplace.

I forgot about the possibility that the world was coming to an end. I was too busy discovering a different world. There was Zeus and Hera. There was Achilles and Hector. There was Jason and the Argonauts. I was so absorbed in this world that I had what I would now call a transcendent experience. At the time, I just knew that I wasn’t afraid any more.

When the blackout was over, we said our good-byes and prepared to go home. My mother’s friend asked me if I wanted to take the book with me. It was her daughter’s, but she knew she would want me to have it. I was ecstatic and slightly guilty. How could anyone part with this? I took it. For the next few weeks I did nothing else in my spare time but read the book. There was Odysseus and Oedipus. There was Paris and Helen.

That book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, changed me in some elemental way. It gave me hope. For all I know it saved my life. My father had died a few years before. My mother was incapable of raising me on her own. I was on the cusp of turning from good student to juvenile delinquent. I did go down a path toward self-destruction, but I had something to take with me, and I have no doubt that book and the ones that followed, kept me from self-obliteration.

A few years after that night, I found out from my mother that her friend’s daughter had killed herself. I thought of the book. I knew it was ridiculous, but I thought maybe she’d done it because she gave it up. I thought she had sacrificed herself to save me. That’s how much I believe in the power of books."

Christopher Kennedy is the author of three books, Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death (BOA Editions, Ltd.), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award in 2007, Trouble with the Machine (Low Fidelity Press), and Nietzsche's Horse (Mitki/Mitki Press). A fourth book, a collection of prose poems, Ennui Prophet, is due from BOA in 2011. His work has appeared in numerous print and on-line journals and magazines, including Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Slope, Mississippi Review, and New York Tyrant. One of the founding editors of the literary journal, 3rd Bed, he is an associate professor of English at Syracuse University where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.}


  1. That book is still one of my favorites. So glad it found a place in your soul :)

  2. for me it was a faux leather bound collection of the classic, i believe it was red, that my schoolmarm aunt had in her kitchen, treasure island, robinhood, grims et al, two shelves of them, that was my treasure island, i feel like thats what responsible for my lifelong love of books (mythwork and adventure too) - moving piece kennedy