Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is the passenger in a Cessna. He’s headed to visit his dad in north Canada for the summer. The pilot dies of a heart attack. Brian crash-lands the plane in a lake surrounded by a dense forest. Can he survive?
The above is what I get from the first few chapters of the book I am planning not to read – “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen. What the heck? It’s a children’s book. And I don’t have to read it.
“What an astonishing thing a book is.” Thus begins an oft-cited quotation from the late Carl Sagan. A book, he goes on, is “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles.”
I’ve avoided reading many a book by simply not looking at the squiggles. Therein lies the danger. All it takes, Sagan says, is “one glance … and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”
“Hatchet” is an adventure tale for teenagers. It’s an old book, published in 1987! I checked it out because I know someone who’s recently read it. And I want to be able to discuss it with him. I plan to skim the first few pages, then turn to the back and see how it comes out.
That doesn’t happen. I am engrossed from the start. And, a couple hours later, I am done.
Gary Paulsen, 74, has authored more than 200 books. He chooses to live modestly. And he loves to write. He says he was a poor student in school, but a public librarian got him hooked on reading.
Forging his parents’ signature on the paperwork, he entered the army at 17 and was assigned engineering duty. Which he hated. Somewhere in the experience of hating engineering, be decided to become a writer. “I was broke, poor. I wrote for nothing.”
An avid outdoorsman who once competed in the Iditarod, Paulsen says he did not aspire to fame. “You can be the most popular person in the world, and … a grizzly bear will still kill you. … I write because I really, really love to write. When a story works, my neck hair goes up. …
“I love the honesty of young people. They’ll tell you if they don’t like a book. … If I’ve done my job right, those words will go to their brains. …” Spoken like the true writer that he is!
“Writing,” Sagan tells us, “is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
Paulsen advises kids to take maximum advantage of this magic. “Read like a wolf eats,” he says. “Read when they tell you not to read and read what they tell you not to read.”
“Hatchet,” by the way, is the first in a series. Four sequels continue “Brian’s Saga.” So, guess what I’m planning to not read over the holidays?
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.