One of the questions that I’m most often asked by readers is why I decided to become a writer. It is, at once, the simplest and most difficult of all the regular questions. Simple because I can point to an exact moment and say, “That was when I decided to be a writer.” But difficult because the fact that I decided in that exact moment to become a writer is muddled by the fact that it was the same moment I became a reader.
Twenty-five years later, and what I see in retrospect is that the world doesn’t necessarily need more writers, but it sure needs more readers.
My epiphany came when I was a junior at Minneapolis South High School. I was not the world’s best student. Certainly I was more interested in flirting with the girls in class or getting a laugh than I was in the subjects I was being taught. One day, sitting in an overcrowded English classroom, no doubt causing a disturbance of one sort or another, I was reprimanded by my teacher, who said, “Hey, Geye, it’s a lot easier to be a smartass if you’ve actually read the book.” Rather than feeling chastened or humbled, I felt challenged. I could be a better smartass? I would be. You bet.
I worked at a pizza joint after school, and that afternoon I went to work, slung some pie, then settled into my usually quiet shift with the book we’d been assigned. The book that would make me a better smartass. The novel was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and within the first twenty pages I was transported. I was in mortal fear. I was in love. I was at war. I had new friends. I understood all the ominous signs of foreshadowing in this world. I understood—without question—that the feeling those pages were evoking in me were the sort of feelings it would be meaningful to evoke in others. I decided in that single shift at the pizzeria that I would be a writer. I also understood that in order to become a writer, I would need to read. I would need to read a lot.
People often smirk or snigger when they hear a book can change someone’s life. I want to slap the disbelievers. Books have changed my life a hundred times. But none as much as when my high school English teacher—a man by the name of David Beenken—assigned his class a novel by Hemingway, when he challenged one of his most difficult students to become a better smartass. A single book in the hands of an unsuspecting student that changed his life forever. It’s just that simple.
All of which is to say that I’m especially honored, and entirely humbled, to have had my second novel, The Lighthouse Road, selected as one of the titles for World Book Night 2014. The literary world is often curious. It’s sometimes difficult to navigate. But at its most basic level, it’s a world full of books and stories, all of them waiting to find the perfect reader. How many times has a story found that person? Impossible to say, but the odds sure go up when programs such as WBN go out onto the streets with thousands of books—thousands of stories—looking for the unsuspecting.
I was once that unsuspecting reader, thank God. Here’s hoping that some eager young kid gets her hands on a book she never even knew existed, and finds herself in mortal fear. Or love. Or at war. Certainly with a new friend.
And though I’ve said thanks to Dave Beenken a hundred times, here’s one more salutation. You made me a reader. You made me a better person because you did.
Peter Geye is the author of The Lighthouse Road and Safe from the Sea.