All my life, I've been a voracious reader. Where this obsession came from, I've no idea, because no one else in my family is very interested in reading. Maybe it dates back to Mrs. Adams' second grade classroom, where, if we had finished our work and were quiet, she would read to us from Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. While all the other kids were climbing trees and making forts, I was only interested in the worlds I could discover between the pages of the book I was currently reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, the good and the bad, and immediately moved on to the next one. I had some books that I was fond of from my childhood, such as the works of Beverly Cleary, and adolescence introduced me to S.E. Hinton and the adventures of Trixie Beldon, but most books were calm, predictable and comfortable.
When I was 16, my high school French class went on a short European Trip. I had dreamed about the trip for ages and was very excited. At the airport, on impulse, I bought a book that caught my eye. Just what attracted me to it in the first place, I can't remember, because the cover is nothing exciting. It's just a plain black cover with the title in silver and the author's name in red lettering. I have the battered paperback still, even though the pages have yellowed and the cover is ready to fall off (note to self: must buy new copy).
I was hooked from the first sentence: "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater." The book, of course, was The World According to Garp by John Irving. From that first startling sentence, I was grabbed and immersed in Garp's unbelievable world, until, with rising dismay, I realized that the end of the book was rapidly approaching. Never before had I encountered such people and situations. Feminist nurses who rape (let's call it what it is) comatose patients. Transsexual football players. Maimed and disfigured children. Bears on unicycles. People with names like Jillsy Sloper (Lawd!) and O. Fecteau (the speeding plumber). I could no more have stopped reading than I could have stopped breathing. I'm sorry to say that the delights of Paris were mostly lost on me, so impatient was I to get back to the hotel in the evenings and rejoin Garp's adventures.
In the 25 years since I first met Garp, I have often taken the book down and opened it randomly. On any page, I can find a hilarious phrase or situation that will instantly grab me and let me enjoy a few minutes of insanity in an otherwise normal day. Garp was my first experience of an author taking unimaginable chances with characters and situations. In fact, after I finished the book, reading anything else was something of an anticlimax, since no other book measured up. Thankfully, I have discovered other authors and books that have also shocked, thrilled and enthralled me over the years. I will always be grateful to John Irving for giving me that first taste of adventure and amazement as a reader.