A literary phenomenon that spans the generations

Greg Bean Coda

Greg Bean

In the spring of 1965, I thought I might actually have to run away from home in the dead of night, hop a tramp steamer to Mongolia, and spend the remainder of my days building yurts, because I simply could not face the embarrassment of my life.

At issue was the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” and my mother’s steadfast refusal to let me see the upcoming blockbuster on the basis of two unfortunate facts. One: she thought the billboard for the movie, the one where the nude woman is covered in gold paint, was scandalous, and if the movie showed naked ladies slathered in gold paint, that movie was no place for her 12-almost-13-year-old son. And two: Parents Magazine, which reviewed all movies released to general audiences and gave stars on whether they were recommended for kids, had given the movie a measly half-star rating out of the possible five.

I hated Parents Magazine, which I supposed was written and edited by a bunch of tight-lipped prudes who never wanted to have fun. On more than one occasion, I’d even tried to hide the latest copy when it came in the mail so she couldn’t see the reviews of movies coming that weekend to the only theater in our town. Alas, she found the copy with the “Goldfinger” review before I could toss it in the trash.

I also believed that any kid who could easily peruse the photography and lurid artwork in that month’s edition of Argosy or True Detective at the barbershop, who had studied the copy of Playboy hidden at the bottom of his dad’s sock drawer, was not about to be psychologically deformed by a lady covered in gold paint. And besides, the parents of all my friends were allowing them to see the movie, and I’d be the only one left out. The only one whose mother said no.

Did Robbie Masterson’s mother read Parents Magazine and tell him what movies he could see, like a sniveling mama’s boy? No, she certainly did not. And if my best friend Robbie got to see “Goldfinger” and I didn’t because my mother wouldn’t let me, I’d never live it down.

These arguments cut no mustard with her, though. She was adamant.

I resorted to begging. “Is there any way I can convince you to let me see this movie?” I whined. “Pleeeeease!”

“Let me think about it,” she said.

And the next day, she came back with a deal. “Did you know that this movie was made from a book written in 1959 by Ian Fleming?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said. Until that time, my reading had consisted entirely of Hardy Boys novels, “Big Red,” the Jack London oeuvre, Mad Magazine and those men’s magazines at the barber’s. Beyond that, reading was too much like work.

“Well, here it is,” she said. “You read the book first, and if you can discuss it like an adult, then you can see the movie.” She was a smart woman, my mother, smarter than I had ever imagined. She was about to change my life.

At that time, checking out an Ian Fleming book at the school or county library was no easy thing for a kid to do. The librarian kept the books behind the counter, and would only hand them over if you first produced a note from your parents saying it was OK. But I checked out “Goldfinger” that very day, along with Fleming’s first novel in the Bond series, “Casino Royale.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say I was about to get the most pleasant surprise of my life. Those books opened a world of adult thought and imagination that I’d never known existed. Through them, I fell in love with grown-up books, and reading, and the way a well-crafted phrase sounds when you say it aloud.

I read Fleming’s 14-book series straight through, and then went back to the library for a novel by another author, and another after that. My hunger for literature continues to this day. I can’t get enough of the written word, and can’t imagine life without it. Those Bond books were the cornerstones of my decision to study literature in college, and become a writer and reporter later. The movies, even the highly anticipated “Goldfinger,” fell short in comparison.

I almost hate to admit, however, that I have never read a single Harry Potter book to the end. I say that not to be condescending, but as a simple statement of fact. I started the first one and gave it up after a few chapters, because it just wasn’t to my personal taste.

Still, I am humbled by the monumental gift that the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has given its millions upon millions of readers. Certainly never in my lifetime has a single author and a single series of stories done so much to instill and nurture a love of reading in the hearts of so many. The impact of the Harry Potter series is mind-boggling and world changing, beyond the money it has made.

Consider that in the first weekend that the final Harry Potter book was on store shelves, about 8.3 million copies were sold. That is 8.3 million individuals who gave up their time, and their money, to savor a book. They did this in a time when overall reading skills have fallen to dangerous lows. When few people under 20 ever read an entire book, if they don’t have to. In a time when most adult Americans don’t read a single book in an entire year. In a time when many newspapers are canceling book review sections because so few people read for enjoyment.

And she has created something that not only bridges the generation gap, but strengthens that bridge. Her books (335 million sold) are loved by children, and teens, and young adults and parents and seniors. They are enjoyed by people like my brother and his wife, who read the book together with their children last weekend. By people like my wife, who took a vacation day Monday to finish it. By people like the grandmother I saw reading the first chapters of the final book to her grandchildren at the bookstore last weekend. By three teen-age friends in one of our photos happily huddled around a single copy.

Whether you like her books or not, I believe that Rowling has done more for reading and the love of literature than any single author since the time of Shakespeare, even more than my idol, Mark Twain. That’s saying a lot. And for that miraculous achievement, our society owes her a huge debt of gratitude.

For this entire generation, and maybe the next, she’s made reading cool.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.