I’ve been asked to speak at a Literacy Works event called “A Book That Changed My Life.” Choosing which book to talk about was a daunting task; do I choose the book that was a large influence or a book that I have read dozens of times? How to choose a single book; it’s like choosing which breath is your favorite? The answer is always, the next one.
When I was young, my mother would read from a book called “Children’s Stories of the Bible (from the Old and New Testaments).” I loved the stories and the pictures that came with them. I would read them on my own when I was old enough and it was the closest I ever came to religious instruction. It’s traveled with me for the past 40 years. The morals and lessons within still flow through me.
Speaking strictly from a science-fiction point-of-view, I adored the book “Dune.” It’s smart about ecology, politics and religion and somehow still filled with intrigue and adventure. There’s a talent that the Bene Gesserit sect uses called The Voice. It’s a kind of martial art that involves using the precise word, timbre, volume and projection to virtually command the chosen target. It wasn’t a super-power per se, it was something learned. So I took it upon myself to teach myself The Voice. I would attempt to use It when speaking with teachers and friends. I never got as powerful as the Bene Gesserits, but for a amateur (particularly a male) I did alright.
My sister had a Big Book of Horse Stories or some such and flipping through it I read two stories; “Black Beauty” (eh) and “Silver Blaze,” a Sherlock Holmes story about a missing horse. I was enraptured with this detective and sought out his other adventures. I’ve read the entire canon several times over, usually about twice a year. I bought this collection in early eighties and it’s been with me ever since.
For most of my life I was obsessed with true crime stories; especially serial killers. I know far too much about serial killers, but I stopped my obsession sometime in the early 90s. Why? It got too much. It was too much of a burden. I met a girl and she was doing her Masters on serial murder and had received some FBI files. We traded books and papers and it was then that I had had enough. The bad thing about having so many cases and horrors in your mind is that eventually that’s all you can see and envision. I read a conspiracy-oriented book on the Son of Sam murders and a book on Jack the Ripper; they both had photographs of murder scenes that are, sadly, burned into my memory and I wish they weren’t there. I even purged my library of my serial killer books.
“John Adams” by David McCullough was an eye-opener. Being a lifelong fan of our second president I have read several biographies about John Adams but this was the very first that felt like the writer actually liked him. I cannot tell you how pleasing the entire book was to me.
But that’s not why you came to the theater tonight, is it?
The book I chose to speak about at the Literacy Works event is called “Superman: from the 30s to the 80s.” After so many books, why this one? I grew up with mostly Batman, ghost and World War 2 comics. When my brother need surgery my aunt asked me what kind of books would he want and I suggested comic books, which was a lie. He wasn’t into comics, but I was. I was a 12 year old asshole. So, I wasn’t too interested in Superman, with his flashy powers and bright colors, but I came to love him.
In the beginning, he was more grassroots with more mundane (but still super!) powers. In the very first issue, he stops a lynching and beats up a husband in a domestic dispute. In the very second issue, he goes to Europe and makes generals fight in the trenches; the fear defeats their bloodlust and they all realize they’ve been fighting, not for ideals, but for munitions profits. And this was in 1938.
Ultimately, what enraptured me about Superman is his elevated altruism. It’s not just concern for the well-being of others that motivates him; it’s the astounding restraint that he shows. He could simply rule the Earth or enjoy his life in quiet splendor but instead he cares for the Earth. Not like a parent, not like pets, but like a wiser, more experienced brother. He’s not super intelligent, he doesn’t have all the answers, and I like that. He learns hard truths along the way and moral dilemmas are more difficult for him than a dozen laser beams.
Superman, with all his powers and abilities (and they’ve waxed and waned over the decades) has chosen not to be bully, to not live in the comfort that a less generous philosopher might take advantage of. He has chosen to serve all living beings.
Superman: “I can only tell you what I believe, Diana. humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”
Flash: “But that’s what she’s saying. What’s the point? Why should they need us at all?”
Superman: “To catch them if they fall.”
To secretly use your powers for good, is something I strongly believe in. I don’t have any super powers, so I use what I have been given to help others. Opening a door, helping someone with a package, a word of comfort or support it is these little things that make us a kinder, better society. It’s the people who go above and beyond the call of community that enrich us all. The people who donate time and money to causes that empower and enrich our world. Things like food pantries, homeless shelters and literacy programs this is how we catch each other when we fall.
Could we be better at these things? Could we do more? Of course, but we’re not Superman are we? We’re just plain ole humans who dream of flying.
I read Superman stories because at their very core they’re about hope and caring for each other. I read Superman stories not just because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to bend steel with his bare hands; I read Superman stories because he cares for us like I wish we all cared for each other. With the needless violence, pain and cruelty in the world sometimes I wish he was real. Sometimes I think, THIS is a job for Superman.