Escape-Into-Chris: Reading to My Father


Jonathan Koch, Pear, Cheese, Grapes, Walnuts, Glass, oil on linen, 12 x 10 inches, 2013
Jonathan Koch

Happy Thanksgiving 2014! 

Often for holidays we revisit the writings of our founding editor, Christopher Al-Aswad (1979-2010). This time we present excerpts from “My Reading Years,” a college paper Chris wrote while attending DePaul University in Chicago. The assignment is to write a sort of reading autobiography. What made you the reader/writer you are today? Describe your reading experiences growing up. And so on… 

Chris’s  essay details his reading experiences and characterizes his relationship with his father. It’s complicated! But you’ll see the thanks giving…. 

Jonathan Koch, Oranges and Ceramic Jars, oil on linen, 14 x 16 inches, 2013

–from Chris Al-Aswad, in 2002: 

…Because of incidents in my childhood, or so I believe, I have developed a set of sturdy values over the years pertaining to reading…. 

To put it simply: My father demanded that I read classical literature to him nearly every night from sixth grade through freshman year of high school. What did we read? Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Jungle Book, One Thousand and One Nights, Tale of Two Cities, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, Canterbury Tales, Oliver Twist, and so on… And, nearly every night from sixth grade to seventh grade, I told him, “I hate you.” Some nights I told him, “I hate the classics. I hate reading.” When I asked him with tears in my eyes, “Why are you doing this?”—he told me that he enjoyed reading and wanted to “share the experience with his son.” After the bitter fighting ended, I surrendered on the couch by his side, with a big torturous book in my lap. 

Jonathan Koch, mandarin_on_booksBecause of the trauma surrounding my “reading years,” this autobiography could easily slip into a psychological analysis of my childhood. Let me just say that I seriously believed something was wrong with me. None of the other kids were forced to read to their parents in high school. On many a night, I told myself that my father was doing this because I wasn’t smart enough, or because I was born stupid. Inside of me brewed a host of fears and insecurities about my abilities and my intelligence. I made it seem like he was the problem, when in actuality I blamed myself…. 

…I discovered that my father wanted as a young boy, more than anything, to be a published author—it was his dream, the one he never told anyone about—and his passion was literature. [As] every father does to his son what his father did to him, my father imposed his dream on me. But keep in mind, my father could never follow the promptings of his true self (hence the reason why he handed them down to me). His mother, in fact, imposed her dream on him, which was to become a doctor. 

Ironically, we become the very people we refuse to become, that is, our parents. My father’s influence has been such that reading defines who I am…. 

Jonathan Koch, Tangerine in a Silver Cup, 8 x 10 inches, 2012…I read meticulously, obsessively at times, wanting to squeeze the juice out of every single sentence. I look up every word I don’t know and every word I think I might not know. I reread sections of novels that do not wash down easily in one gulp. I reread sections of novels that speak to me, words that I admire. This is reading in the Thoreauian sense, reading as physical labor, sweat-work. I undoubtedly attribute this discipline of reading to the structure my father implanted in my childhood. 

…Yes, reading to my father tormented me for many years. But now, many years later, I look back on it and witness the earliest relics of my life. Next I turn to the future, and see a bright city arising. 

More art by Jonathan Koch

 

Since Chris’s death, his father, Basel Al-Aswad, has been gathering his own thoughts here at EIL in a series of Via Basel posts. Someday maybe he’ll give us his reading autobiography! To read more excerpts from Chris’s writings, see Escape-Into-ChrisTo learn more about Basel,“a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body,” see Via Basel