To Kill a Mockingbird

How My Older Brother Made Me A Lifelong Reader

Readers with wheels.     My older brother Tom and I following the Hartford Half Marathon in 2010.

Readers with wheels. My older brother Tom and I following the Hartford Half Marathon in 2010.

By Daniel Ford

My older brother Tom is the smartest person I know.

(Okay, his wife is probably even smarter, but I’ve known Tom the longest, so he wins).

I loved the fact that he was smart when I was growing up. It made me want to be smart. It made me want to read a book at the breakfast table like he did every morning. His example made me want to do my homework right when I got home and strive to do the best I could do in school.

I remember walking into his room as a kid—always when he was out of the house because I was too afraid to ask him to hang out—and marvel at all the cool stuff he had. His Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs baseball figurines, NFL gridiron comforter, his original Nintendo. It was a nerd nirvana!

More importantly, Tom always had a ton of books arranged beautifully on his bookshelf. I didn’t steal them back then because I was still reading illustrated versions of Robin Hood and Treasure IslandThe Boxcar Children, and any "Star Wars" novel I could get my hands on. I loved knowing his weightier books were there and he had either read them or was planning on reading them. I would go back to my own room and rearrange my less impressive array of titles on my bookshelf so that each shelf started with the tallest book and ended with the shortest, just like my older brother did.

Thanks to my older brother, this is what my life looks like.

Thanks to my older brother, this is what my life looks like.

I read everything back then, but I hadn’t had the moment. You know the moment I’m talking about. It's the moment when someone puts a book in your hands and it hits your mind like a thunderbolt and completely changes the direction of your life.

Tom put several books in my hands one Christmas and I’ve haven’t been the same since. He wordlessly handed me a superbly wrapped present. The box was heavy. Since I was only reading thin paperbacks at that point, I didn’t know that meant it could only contain one thing. Books. Heavy, beautiful books.

Inside the box were three books that transformed me from a reader to a readerTo Kill a Mockingbird1984, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

I devoured the first two in short order. My young mind was blown that those two masterpieces came out of someone’s pen. People actually wrote like this? You mean there was more to literature than just pulpy fiction and sci-fi adventures?

Even if I had been a stronger reader at that point, nothing would have prepared me for the opening line to Irving’s classic novel:

“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”

Whoa. 

Heavy stuff for a kid who was just trying to survive middle school!

When Tom went to college, I spent a lot of time raiding his bookshelf (and his music collection). He had already made the jump to American history tomes that were way over my head at the time, but which I attempted to plow through all the same. I’m pretty sure I still have his copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that I stole back in high school (and finally finished as a college sophomore). He moved out after graduating and took all his books with him, but the bookshelf stayed behind. I relentlessly set out to fill it after immediately moving into his old room.

Me holding said copy of A People's History of the United States   on a trip to Yankee Stadium.

Me holding said copy of A People's History of the United States on a trip to Yankee Stadium.

I had some help thanks to my high school English teacher Pamela Hayward, who consistently handed me books like Crazy in AlabamaSnow Falling on Cedars, and As I Lay Dying, in addition to the required reading for AP English. But the constant was my older brother. Every Christmas, there would be more books. Or gift cards with recommendations attached. Or a loan from his precious collection.

Now, our bookcases are essentially lending libraries between the two of us. He has books on his shelf that I’ve loaned him without having read them, and vice versa. He likes to kid and say that a book has to be on his shelf for 10 years before he reads it (except for Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, which he will never read). If I can’t find a book in my collection, odds are he has it. Some of the best moments of our bonding weekends are spent talking about all the books we have yet to read in front of one of his bookcases (I usually end up taking one or two home with me every time).

His early example also inspires me to buy books for his three kids—as well as all my other nieces and nephews—for birthdays and Christmas. Toys are fleeting and end up as yard sale fodder. Books are a gateway to creativity, curiosity, and fun! I’ll be getting them books even when they think I’m the lame uncle who gives books (including my own someday…don’t judge me) as gifts, because that’s what I learned from my older brother. It has the added bonus of allowing me to rediscover titles from my youth and keep current with today’s children’s literature.

My nephew Jack (top photo)   and my niece Katie giving me hope for future readers.

My nephew Jack (top photo) and my niece Katie giving me hope for future readers.

Tom is now a principal at an elementary school in Connecticut, where he’s inspiring a new generation of young minds.

I follow his Twitter account and couldn’t be prouder when I see something like:

Dr. Veronesi read to both kindergarten classes this morning for Read Across America Day! @KathyVeronesi#rsd13ctpic.twitter.com/ehKB3lFLSI
— Thomas D. Ford (@TFord_LymanCT) February 28, 2014

I sleep well knowing the next generation of readers is in good hands.

For more essays, check out our full archive

The Art of the Beginning: How to Seduce Your Reader

By Daniel Ford

I want you to think of how some of your favorite books began. While you ponder that, here are a couple of mine:

“It was inevitable: the scent of almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”—Love in the Time of Cholera
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”—To Kill a Mockingbird
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.”—A People’s History of the United States
“He was the last one to act.”—Sid Sanford LIVES!

Okay, I cheated; the last one is from my novel that hasn’t been published yet. Hey, I wrote it, it can be my favorite if I want dammit.

The scariest thing about sitting down to write is trying to figure out where to start. You’ve got one chance to make a first impression. Your book cover did a great job of getting that book into a reader’s hands, but you’ve got to do the rest of the heavy lifting when that reader turns to the first page. What’s your “Call my Ishamel” or “You better not never tell nobody but God''? Thinking about your opening line should keep you up at night because you want it to one day keep readers up at night long past their bedtimes.

How my beginnings generally look.

How my beginnings generally look.

Usually, there is much more coffee than featured in this photo. 

I happen to love beginnings. It’s the middles and the ends I struggle with, and really who needs them? With a few exceptions, you’re never going to love a novel as much as you do when you first start it. I wish I could write a novel with only beginnings and get away with it. No plot, no character development, just setting up a world that I might some day want to revisit.

Originally, I went about writing the beginning to my novel after I had written just about everything else. At that point, my novel wasn’t a novel. It was a collection of stories based on this guy I hadn’t grown into yet. I had a loose idea in my idea of smoothing all the stories out to make one coherent story, but everything I had so far was a slew of middles and half an ending.

Then I started thinking about poker. That’s because I was playing a lot of it at the time. I didn’t have much money to lose, but I lost a lot of it during random Tuesday night poker games in Queens. It wasn’t the gambling that was addicting; it was being around a group of friends sitting around a table with a couple of beers and a vague knowledge of how to take each other’s money. I even organized a poker game for my family one weekend that had more color and suspect card playing than a heated game of Go Fish between 3-year-olds.

So I had a bunch of characters I loved and a desperate need to introduce them in a way that was true to them and the story I was trying to tell. And I had a table, some poker chips, and a deck of cards. Putting the two together after weeks of sleepless nightmares and frightening re-writes was like getting the card you needed on the river. The beginning began to suck me in slowly and seductively, and it’s sucked in at least three of the people you’ve read my novel thus far. The idea is out there, you’ve just got to patiently follow the breadcrumbs and not be tempted by subpar openings just to get to your plot.

Some other things to think about when settling on your first lines:

  • No idea is a bad idea at first. Get it all out there. You never know which bad idea is going to lead to a better one.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave your beginning until the end. Beginnings are where you’re going to make your money, so revisit it often and take time at the end of your process to make sure it reflects your characters and themes.
  • A shocking beginning isn’t necessarily a good one. You don’t want to overpromise at the start and then under-deliver in the end.  You’re building a world, don’t light it on fire with your opening lines if you can’t fan the flames or put it out in the middle.

During my high school graduation speech, I said that there really aren’t endings; there are only more beginnings. Endings were really a chance to take a breath before diving into what’s next. That’s what you want your opening to be like for your reader. A huge gulp of air before dipping beneath the surface of your words, only to rise again when your next beginning makes them long for the oxygen of temptation.

Now go write. Always.

For more essays, check out our full archive