The first book that truly captivated my imagination was C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. In grade school, I picked it from a Scholastic Book Club flyer because I thought the cover illustration looked intriguing. I’ll never forget my absolute bewilderment when I read the opening scene, which featured four children at a train station fretting about their return boarding school. What the hell was this? Where were the knights sword-fighting? I actually double-checked the cover and re-read the synopsis on the back, certain there must have been some sort of mistake or misprint – some dolt sent me the right cover but with the wrong book in it!
That was a make-or-break moment for me because it came right at the cusp of my shift in preference from children’s picture books to more mature books . . . without pictures. Up until then, the thought of books with nothing but words in them provoked about the same feelings I held for creamed spinach. I almost went upstairs to tell my mom we’d have to return this weird, mixed-up book that I’d clearly received by accident. But something told me there wasn’t much mom would be able to do. This had been mail-ordered, after all; it wasn’t like we could drive over to the mall and return it to B. Dalton.
So what to do? I hesitated for several moments weighing my options. Should I chuck it, or read it? My thoughts teetered, and the decision genuinely could have gone either way. Eventually, I concluded that, since I was stuck with it, I might as well give it a chance.
In short order, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy tumbled into Narnia, and suddenly an entire world came to life in my imagination. The books I was used to showed you what their stories looked like, leaving little room for interpretation. But as I read Prince Caspian, I learned that a book without pictures allowed you to conjure your own vision of its story. The world of Narnia lived and breathed in my mind more vividly than anything else I’d ever read before . . . and I was hooked.
For days I’d seek out quiet places in the house to follow Caspian’s struggle against the Telmarines. When I finally finished his story, I was hungry for more. Each month, I diligently scoured the Scholastic flyer for the next Chronicle of Narnia and pestered my parents to order it. The waiting and anticipation made the delivery of each new installment an event.
Before I could collect them all, the school year ended. Moreover, by the time I’d noticed Prince Caspian‘s catchy cover, I’d already missed the first installment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Completing the series now would require determination and ingenuity.
Every time my family visited the mall, I’d hunt and peck at the shelves of both B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. In hodge-podge fashion, I added new volumes, usually out of sequence. But I refused to give up. I had to know what happened next, and how everything would turn out!
More than a year later, my parents finally managed to find a boxed set that contained the entire series. It was the only gift I remember opening that Christmas. At last, I could finish the Chronicles of Narnia.
I remember the gut-punch I felt when the valiant swashbuckling Reepicheep chose to sail off the edge of the world in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I remember being perplexed by Puddleglum, the obnoxiously grumpy Marsh-wiggle in The Silver Chair. And I remember the bitter sadness of The Last Battle, when Aslan’s faithful abandoned a dying Narnia, while those without faith remained stranded in a doomed world.
However, the brand new boxed set introduced a problem I hadn’t anticipated. Now I had duplicate copies of more than half the books in the series. What was I supposed to do with the extras? There was clearly no need to keep them, and it made the most sense to keep the newest copies since they were in the best shape.
But when I got to my original copy of Prince Caspian I had to pause. I’d read it several times by then. Since it was my first book, I’d experimented with different methods of holding it one-handed, such as folding the front cover back around the spine. As a result, it definitely showed its age. The cover was cracked, creased, and falling off. The spine was hopelessly bent, its title no longer legible. The corners were worn and frayed, and the pages all dog-eared and yellowing.
But as I held it, I knew it was special. That book had taken me on an unprecedented journey, one that solidified a transition between the preferences of my childhood and the newly-forming preferences of young adulthood. It was my first . . . and I couldn’t let it go. So I kept my original copy of Prince Caspian – my first book without pictures, the first book that had truly enchanted my imagination, and the book that inaugurated a lifelong love of reading. Today, it still sits on the bookshelf in my office, and someday, it will be the first book without pictures that I read to my daughters.