Stephen King is helping me read again after cancer

All my life, reading stories has been my refuge. In my loneliest times as a child, a chapter book saw me through. From Encyclopedia Brown to Jane Eyre, all my troubles were left behind once I entered the world of the story.

Until cancer.

The first edition cover of "Book VII: The Dark Tower" by Stephen King.

The first edition cover of “Book VII: The Dark Tower” by Stephen King.

During one of the hardest times of my life, I lost the ability to follow a story or get lost in a novel. My iPad tells the story via electronic bookmarks from years ago. I read Books V and VI of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series from January 2011 to March 2011. I remember taking a break, because I wanted to really savor the last book in the series.

I picked up Book VII in October 2012 in the midst of treatment. I would read 50 pages, stop, reread those pages, stop, wait, try again. For six months, I can see how I tried and couldn’t keep going.

I lost the narrative thread.

You should know that I love King. I read “The Stand” one summer in college. It was 100 degrees outside and I read shivering under blankets. King’s apocalyptic winter held me in its sway.

Nothing draws me quite like his stories.

I remember reading “Salem’s Lot” on an airplane and losing all sense of my surroundings. I got to one terrifying spot and gasped. Loudly. The guy next to me said, “You okay?”

So, it was terrible to lose the ability to escape. In the midst of anxiety and physical discomfort, drowning in my fear of the unknown, I couldn’t get lost in a story.

I’ve tried to figure out what has made reading so hard. Because it hasn’t been all reading. Just fiction. I have a file box full of research I read during that time. I’ve consumed nonfiction. I had to because it was all I had. But I don’t get lost in nonfiction.

In English studies we call good reading the “willing suspension of disbelief.” You may think reading fiction is easy, just an indulgence. But reading well is a gift and a skill. You have to be willing to surrender your world for another, such as Stephen King’s. You have to fall into another world and let it build up around you.

I’ve always thought our majors’ ability to let go of their cognitive present and give in to the narrative is a kind of magic. The writer helps create the world, but the reader has to learn to fall. English majors are underrated.

During cancer I lost the ability to fall. My own world was just too compelling. I could live only in my reality, full of fear, not of vampires but of cancer.

Over the past four years I’ve been trying to get it back, this ability to read. I’ve had some luck with short detective fiction here and there. But it’s been hard.

This summer I decided to give “Book VII: The Dark Tower” another try. I gave myself an assignment. 50 pages, 50 more, 50 more. Push through. It was like physical therapy. Thirty seconds of wall sits repeated four times eventually becomes a minute repeated four times. I made myself commit to the narrative.

(And, I’ll warn you now that there are spoilers below. But for heaven’s sake, the book was published in 2004.)

I knew it was starting to work for me when I cursed King for killing Eddie, and then I sobbed when we lost Jake. King takes Jake from us twice in this series and that seems unfair. The Dark Tower is about a journey to save and find the Dark Tower.  Somehow, finally, I was able to fall back into Roland’s epic journey between and among worlds. Roland and his followers have to change the future. They have to sacrifice and grieve, kill and suffer. It is King’s master work.

There was a point in the book where I knew how it would end. That is what willing suspension of disbelief does for you. You live in a different world, a world of someone’s else’s making, and you let it become your own.

About halfway through Book VII, I realized that Roland’s journey would never be over. I didn’t know how that would unfold or how we’d learn this truth, but King was telling us and preparing us every step. The journey was never going to end for Roland.

It seems fitting that in this book I’ve found the narrative thread again. If I’ve learned anything from cancer, it’s that once the journey starts, it never ends.

After I finished Book VII, I pulled out the “Concordance” for the series and paged through it. (Yes, I am becoming a geek.) I know I’ll be reading the first book in the series again soon.

Reading has not become a refuge for me again. Not yet. But I’ll keep reading and keep trying.

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