My father’s books filled the entire wall of our room. We lived in the USSR, in a Soviet-style communal apartment, in which five of us—my parents, my grandmother, my brother, and I—had to share a single room. The room was small, and my father’s books occupied more space than any one of us.
My father was a true lover of Russian poetry, an amateur poet himself, and a fanatical reader. The bookshelves were organized according to his partiality. His beloved Russian poets crowned the top shelf. Two shelves down were occupied by the Russian prose classics. The translations of foreign authors took two more shelves below. At the very bottom stood serious looking tomes that every member of the Communist Party was encouraged to purchase. My dad was a devoted communist, but I do not recall him ever opening one of those serious books.
Obsessed with poetry, my father read and reread his favorite poets so many times that he had memorized their poems by heart. Ask him to recite a poem and Dad was pure fire! He put so much feeling into the rhymes—shouting and whispering and flailing his arms—that watching him was beautiful and weird.
But as with all consumer goods, books in the Soviet Union were in the ever-diminishing supply. One had to wait in long lines, often overnight, to bring home a treasure—a freshly printed book with that wonderful smell of woodsy pulp.
The black market for the hard-to-find books was booming. We barely had enough to eat, and I had been always surprised that Dad could spend most of his monthly salary on one book. No one else in my family would bat an eye, perhaps because reading in our country was held in such high regard in those days.
Years before I learned my alphabet, I would pretend to know how to read to appear like everyone else. I loitered at the corner of our street before the newspaper display and moved my head side to side, faking reading.
At home, I was strictly forbidden from touching my dad’s books, but I could not resist them. His books were the most interesting, the most surprising possession we had. Left alone in our room during the day, I plundered the politically correct bottom shelf to build interesting staff out of its hefty tomes.
The fifty-seven-volume set of Vladimir Lenin’s works—dark blue covers with gold-embossed type and a shallow relief of the Lenin’s profile—made for an excellent fortress sieged and defended by lead soldiers. The thirty-nine maroon volumes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ theoretical writings created a harrowing racetrack for my two tin wound-up motorcyclists imported from the communist China. The eight-volume-set of Nikita Khrushchev’s directives on building communism served as a handy foundation for an American skyscraper built from the stack of books on the history of the Soviet Communist Party.
I could not read yet, but I knew my numbers, and would place the books back on the shelf in their correct order, not that anyone ever looked down there. Dad’s other books I did not dare to touch until I was almost nine when I had finally been taught to read. We did not have any books written for children at home, and what I could find at the library seemed as boring and didactic as the History of the Soviet Communist Party.
I moved straight to the foreign classics. I struggled through the opening chapters of Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant, understood nothing, and kept going.
By then I was already obsessed with painting and drawing. My obsession had influenced the types of books I began borrowing from my dad’s library. The nineteenth century’s adventure novels—Alexander Duma, Walter Scott, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper—came in beautifully illustrated editions.
Soon, I was copying the illustrations of knights, musketeers, and cowboys into my drawing album. A couple of years later, I began writing and illustrating my own adventure stories, shamelessly plagiarizing my favorite authors.
In those first years of my early reading and writing, I had learned most of what I am still employing in my writing today. First and foremost, I learned to steal only from the very best authors. I learned that a story is not worth telling if its external conflict is mild. I learned that the good protagonists are only as engaging as their inability to recognize, let alone fix their inner flaws. I also learned to make their lives so miserable that only by recognizing and trying to fix (not always successfully) their inner flaws they have a chance to achieve their goals, whatever goals they happen to have in each story.
In a way, writing books is not much different than reading them. When you read a book, you expect the author to surprise you. When you are writing one, you expect to surprise yourself. If you manage to surprise yourself, it is likely that you will surprise your reader.
My father’s books had surprised me again and again. I was reading and rereading Pushkin and Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, surprised that they recognized my innermost thoughts, surprised that I was not alone in my view of the world, surprised that they could move my heart in a single sentence, with a few words, with an unexpectedly placed period. At the end of the day, that what all writing is about: surprise, recognition, movement of the heart.
As far as I know.
Eugene Yelchin is a Russian-American artist best known as an illustrator and writer of books for young readers. Yelchin is a National Book Award finalist for The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge co-authored with M. T. Anderson and the recipient of Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose. He received National Jewish Book Award for illustrating The Rooster Prince of Breslov, Golden Kite Award for The Haunting of Falcon House, Crystal Kite Award for illustrating Won Ton, and Tomie DePaola Illustrator’s Award. See his art at eugeneyelchin.com