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December 25, 2014

Kim Wright: A Truly Epic Christmas Gift

Posted by Lincoln

Who actually reads THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY anymore, much less as a measles-ridden 10-year-old? Kim Wright, that's who! Though, as she tells us in her Holiday Author Blog post, little Kim didn't have much of a choice in the matter. She was itchy, sore and desperate for entertainment, turning begrudgingly to her aunt's Homeric Christmas gift. Luckily, the difficult reading proved worthwhile --- Kim has grown up seeing the epic underpinnings in so many stories, including her own novels, LOVE IN MID AIR and THE UNEXPECTED WALTZ (the latter of which will be available in paperback on December 30th).

The Christmas I was 10, my Aunt Kate gave me copies of THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY. These weren't child-friendly versions of the classics, with nice big print, nice small words and illustrations. Perish the thought. Aunt Kate was a lifelong librarian and, like my grandmother and their other three sisters, was college-educated at a time when few women were. She was constantly bemoaning the fact they'd taken Latin out of the elementary school curriculum and that no one had really good penmanship anymore.

So her Christmas gift that year, like so many before it, was a serious matter: two leather-bound volumes, one gray and one dark blue, with pages so thin and silky that they were almost translucent. I thanked her in person, hugged her papery neck, and then two days later, at my mother's insistence, wrote her a more formal thank-you note in my less-than-stellar penmanship. Then I put the books up on a high shelf in my room, rather pleased with the way that they looked. Even at 10, I knew that some books were meant to be actually read and others were meant to be displayed as evidence. Evidence of exactly what, I wasn't quite sure, but my parents had the whole collection of Great Books in our living room, spanning one whole shelf, and as far as I knew, no one had ever been brave enough to crack the spine on any of those.

And there, in my bedroom, THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY would have likely stayed forever, equally virgin, if I hadn't happened to get the measles in January --- a particularly bad case. Seven days home from school, itchy and miserable, and, eventually, so bored that I took the books down and began to read them.

It was slow going at first. I didn't know what was happening, or to whom. But my mother suggested I look up the main characters in the encyclopedia, and there I read about Achilles and Hector and Ajax --- at least enough to make sense of the story. By the time my measles finally cleared up, I was halfway through THE ODYSSEY. There's no doubt in my mind that without this long stretch of enforced inactivity in an era before video games, smartphones and cable TV, I never would have tackled such ambitious books. I became a reader of the classics because I literally had nothing else to do.

But the books stayed with me and, 10 years later, in a college literature class, a professor told me that there are only two types of stories: stories of people going out into the world seeking adventures and stories of people trying to get home. That these twin desires --- the urge for the new and exciting and the equally strong pull toward the safe and familiar --- are what have motivated human behavior from the beginning of time. And I thought, "Of course…THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY."

Now as a novelist, I always stop before I begin writing and ask myself "Is this an ILIAD plot or an ODYSSEY plot?" It's a very basic way to organize a novel, but I doubt these structures would resonate with me so profoundly if I hadn't read those two books so early in life. As a giver of Christmas gifts, Aunt Kate could never be counted on for a Barbie or even for socks and pajamas. But she gave me a Christmas gift 50 years ago that I'm still using --- and that I know I'll use for the rest of my life.

I wish I could thank her one more time. In Latin.