Mary Higgins Clark has brought unparalleled joy to generations of thriller fans. As part of our ongoing Read Forever guest author series, she’s sharing an experience from her childhood that drove home the importance of reading. In her engaging essay, Mary reminisces about a memorable early television program she watched 50 years ago that encapsulated the power that literature has to broaden horizons and transform lives. At the time, who could have imagined that someday she would be broadening the horizons of millions of readers worldwide?
“Mary, is the light out?" by Mary Higgins Clark
It was a question my mother regularly called up the stairs to me after I had gone to bed. "Yes," I answered truthfully. The light was out but by holding the book up to the street lamp I could make out the words on the pages.
I have always had a book in my hand, not always to my credit. Sometimes it was tucked inside the geometry text book to the chagrin of the math teacher. I loved to baby sit for one family on our block. The father was a school teacher and in a right hand corner of the living room were floor-to-ceiling book shelves with his comfortable leather chair and hassock between them. As soon as the parents left and I was sure the toddlers were asleep, I dove for that chair and opened one of the books. In those days I was paid twenty-five cents a night for babysitting, but I would willingly have minded the children for free to have access to that treasure trove of reading.
Fifty years ago in the days of early television I watched a program that I have never forgotten. The plot was about an incessant talker at a men's club in England who constantly interrupted the other members when they were deep in their newspapers. That young man got so on the nerves of a wealthy older member that he challenged the chatterer with a bet. He would give him a million pounds if he could live totally isolated for one year with no one to talk to. The young man seized at the opportunity. The arrangements were made. He would move into an isolated cottage. Food would be delivered at the gate at a specific time every few days, but he must never speak to the person who made the delivery. If he ever required anything special, he was to leave a note for the messenger.
His first request was made after two weeks. He who had never let anyone read in peace wanted newspapers. Two weeks later he requested magazines. After a month he requested books. Any books. Books on every subject.
A year later to the day he left the cottage and returned to the club prepared to have his wealthy patron waiting with a check for one million pounds. Instead a trembling shadow of the man who had made the bet was awaiting him. "In these past months, I made a foolish investment," he said. "I am ruined. I thought I could salvage something to pay you, but I cannot give you one pence of the money I owe you."
The young man smiled. "You owe me nothing," he said. "It is I who owe you everything. Because of you I have dwelt in Greece and sat at the feet of Sophocles. I traveled in that desperate journey with Hannibal over the Alps. I marched with the Crusaders and sat at the Round Table with Arthur and his knights. I was a Revolutionary War soldier, numb with the cold, but believing in the cause of the colonies. I was with Robert E. Lee when he paced the floor of the Curtis-Lee mansion deciding whether he should lead the Federal or Confederate army. Hamlet and Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, became my familiars. I have shared their passions. I have lived in ancient Egypt and plunged the depths of the sea."
The young man, his voice filled with emotion, paused and put his hands on the shoulders of his now bankrupt and humbled friend. "Sir," he repeated "you owe me nothing. I owe you everything."
That long ago hour-and-thirty-minute television drama says it all about how I believe that reading is the key to discovering and understanding the past and present of this magnificent, troubled world in which we live.
The joy of reading has always been a constant for me. The joy of writing is an immeasurable gift from the gods.
Mary Higgins Clark has written thirty suspense novels. Her books have been published around the world and have sold over one hundred million copies in the U.S. In her latest novel, I’ll Walk Alone, a young woman, who is the victim of identity theft, finds herself accused of kidnapping and possibly murdering her own child. It is a classic Mary Higgins Clark story that will keep readers guessing until the last page.
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