BY MARC VELASQUEZ
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out the Special Features page.]
I loved Bernard Malamud’s The Natural when I hated reading books.
When I was young, before I was in school, my mother saw me “reading”—book open in front of me, finger tracing the words I pretended to read aloud. She thought it was cute, but something troubled her: my hand, while tracing the words across the page, was moving from right to left.
I’m dyslexic. Throughout my elementary years, I spent large chunks of the school day in a trailer behind the school, slowly learning how to make sense out of the jumbled mess of words I saw on the pages of books. The instructors played games with me that sharpened my concentration and perception, and improved my memory. They also spent a great deal of time reading to me, planting a love for stories that they hoped would eventually lead to a love of books.
For me, reading takes a lot of time and even more concentration. I have to put myself in a zone to read, have to shut myself off from any outside distractions. The words and their context have to be the only thing in my mind. And even when they are, even when my focus is pristine, I sometimes have to reread paragraphs or pages or chapters that don’t coalesce into something meaningful. As a middle school student, I wasn’t willing to put in that much effort.
But my love for stories was in full bloom before I ever even read a book in its entirety. What my instructors wanted me to find in books, I found in movies. The lessons of plot and character and dialog I was supposed to learn through red ferns and life on the Mississippi, became clear for me on the screen—through Jedi knights, and Ripley, and dinosaur experts who can’t stand children.
Luckily, being dyslexic has no bearing on one’s intelligence. By the time I entered my Freshman English class, I had the subject figured out. I still didn’t have the desire to struggle my way through an entire book (I could barely make it though magazine articles), but I had learned to use context clues from chapter titles and a few paragraphs at the beginning and end of each chapter to determine a book’s plot. When I was wrong (and I was often wrong), I could correct my mistakes by listening to my classmates discuss what we’d read. I didn’t speak much, and they all thought I was the shy kid in the back of the room. I wrote essays on Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities without reading more than fifty pages of each. I gave an oral book report of The Hobbit based on the cartoon version. (By the way, I was an honors student; I got straight As.)
The single most influential event of my life was choosing a book for my second oral report that year. My teacher passed out the list of choices, I scanned it for a book that had been made into a movie, and I landed on The Natural. I knew the book was probably different from the movie, but that was a problem I knew my way around. By that point, I could fake it with the best of them.
But this time something clicked. I read the first few paragraphs, and wanted to read more, and then I had read a chapter, and then several chapters, and then it was 1:00 in the morning, and I had to go to the bathroom, and I was halfway through the book because I had been reading for 7 hours.
I’m not saying The Natural was easy to read—it required the same amount of concentration that every other book had required of me. But the book drew me in, and held me—a cliché perhaps, but I can think of no other way to explain it. It was a struggle, but it was a struggle in which I was willing to partake.
I’m sure part of my infatuation with The Natural came from my love of baseball. Numbers made sense to me when letters didn’t, and I could read a box score and a score card well before I had read (actually read) a novel. But baseball was far from the only reason I loved this book.
This book is about Roy Hobbs, and not the Roy Hobbs that looks like Robert Redford. The real Roy Hobbs, Malamud’s Hobbs, is an idiot. He’s a fool who always makes terrible, stupid decisions. He isn’t a hard luck case, or an incredible talent who never got the right breaks. He’s an imbecile who can’t get out of his own way. Malamud’s title is an ironic wink; Hobbs, who is so naturally good on the ball field, is also so naturally bad at being a good person. He’s not the hero who hits a game winner into the lights as blood seeps through his jersey, he’s the guy who strikes out on purpose. He’s not the guy who plays catch with his boy as the sun sets on a golden wheat field, he’s the guy who walks away in shame, head down, into darkness and oblivion. Malamud wasn’t trying to say that talent will always win out. He was saying that you might be able to knock the stitches off the ball, but it won’t mean shit if you’re also pulling out the stitches that bind your life together.
I think Malamud’s Roy Hobbs is ultimately what made this book so irresistible. He was complicated and ugly, and real in a way that no movie character could ever be. I didn’t feel like I was reading a story, I felt like I was witnessing life.
I’ve resigned to the fact that reading will never be easy for me. That’s probably, fairly or unfairly, the reason I will never read Twilight, or Harry Potter, or another Dan Brown book. Because when I make the effort to read a book, I want something real and ugly and complicated. I want life, and I have Bernard Malamud and Roy Hobbs to thank for that.