I believe it was summer and I was 11 years old and as so often happened on those hot days, my mom took my brother and I to work with her at the library. Once inside, we got the warning to behave and then, she dispatched us to go find some books to read while she left to take her post behind the periodicals desk.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Reno Downtown Library, but it’s an amazing place. Inside are full-grown trees and these reading pods that rise up on thin pillars from the basement floor. The metal stacks, connected by the spiral staircase, invited you look through them for hours and, sometimes slip-in a game of tag or hide-and-seek, as long as you didn’t get too raucous about it. (My mom must have been a very good librarian by the way, because she kept her job despite bringing us with her. Either that, or she was a very talented at evading direct questions about “whose kids are those?” that must have cropped up during breaks.)
But on that particular day, so long ago, I was actually doing what I was told and trying to find a book. I wanted more than anything a book that would be mine. You see, being the younger brother of an older sibling who was quite a prodigious reader, it was hard to find any books that he hadn’t read first. That my brother also had good taste in literature made it particularly hard, as well.
But luck was with me that day. As I was browsing the shelves I saw the title, “The Shadow of the Torturer.” I picked it up, looked at the cover of a bare-chested man wearing an executioner’s mask, shrugged and then opened to the first page. It took me into another world.
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile.”
I think I read the whole first chapter just standing there among the stacks. I can say honestly, I didn’t get all of the nuances of the book as a kid, but I have since gone back and re-read that book and the rest of the books of the Book of the New Sun series and have been rewarded with how deep the writing really goes in those books. And I realized it didn’t matter if I read it first or my brother. (Though in this case, I did find Gene Wolfe first.)
Wolfe’s ability to create intricate plots across multiple books with a gripping story had me at times saying out loud, “woah” and pleading for something not to happen, or have happened. He was also a writer who could slip in some humor without destroying the seriousness of the story. Truly wonderful.
But what amazes me more than his great prose and his plots is the feeling I get opening his books. To this day, I still get the same sense that I am there, listening to Severian, the main character. I hear his voice when I read it and I’m immersed in his world just like I was that first day at 11 years old.
So it was that I teared up the other day when I awoke and read work that Gene Wolfe had died.
So, we’ll have no more stories from him, though certainly the ones he left behind are enough to comfort us.
If you haven’t ever read any of his works, I would urge you to do so.
Anyway, I was profoundly moved by his writing as a child and an adult and so, in my way, I wanted to acknowledge it.
All the best,