Jean Shepherd Remembering A Great Reading Experience

And all of a sudden as I read, I could see the sun coming in through the venetian blinds.  And I’m gone.  The sun is quietly moving like a golden finger along the floor of time.  I’d never read anything like this before.  I could see the leaves on the hills I had never even known existed.  I could smell the fall air.  And down below the town, the river dark like some great, vast, prehistoric monster.  And a curtain going up in my mind.  Creeping.  And the show was about to begin.  And everything changed.  Trumpets blew.


From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page.  I never read anything in my life that was like this.  It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on.  It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense.  They were beautiful.  Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks.

And that great river flowed on, the web of life to unsung, untold, unopened doors.  The stones.  A leaf dropped.  And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful as words.

Words are what it’s about.  The one thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles.  I could not understand why Miss Easter said they didn’t give this to kids!  The one group they should have given it to was kids.

This writer played upon the line, upon the language of some demented and some fantastically talented, insane dancer on the keyboard of an incredible wind-pipe organ of the gods, of the stars.  Tom-toms booming in the distance.  And I remembered the name of the book.  Always, forever.  He spoke of a stone angel, its sword pointing skyward, holding a stone leaf, the wind blowing over its stone arms and form.  Look Homeward.  Look Homeward, Angel.  You Can’t Go Home Again.  The Web and the Rock.  Yeah!

Did you ever read any of those?  Look Homeward, Angel.  Now, who I’m talking about here is Thomas Wolfe, the original Thomas Wolfe.  The real one.  And the only reason I brought all this up—you know I have to say that that one book—I didn’t understand anything, I didn’t know what it was about.  I think really great literature, you don’t have to understand what it’s about.  You feel it like music.  It’s a felt thing.

Here I was, about ten years old.  It was a fantastic trauma, it really was.  I remember taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because of this rule that you had to go to bed at this certain time, and I had a penlight which my Aunt Glen had given to me for my birthday.  This little fountain pen-shaped flashlight.  So I was hiding under the covers reading Look Homeward, Angel I didn’t know what it was about.  I just knew I couldn’t stop reading it.  It changed me forever really.




artsyfratsy 10010


What I refer to as “cave art” is the art in which I’m in greatest awe. Of the primitive and surprising elegance and intelligence with which it was created. It is where we have come from in our world of art, it is the instant in human history when sophisticated art was born.

I refer to the great cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, and the great carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf. I visited northern Spain’s Altamira in 1966 when the public was still openly admitted. I remember how the guide instructed each visitor to lie on a flat, table-like rock in the cave, where, as he told us, the original painter must have lain while painting the image just an arm’s length above.

conjuntobisontes-2venuswillindorflarge     Small Part of Altamira Cave                                                      Venus of Willendorf

Over the years I collected replicas of a number of pieces, including the pieces I exhibit standing: two Cycladic female carvings and the Guennol lioness, about 3.5″ tall of about 5,000 years ago Mesopotamia, which I saw and first became aware of when it was exhibited just a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum. I immediately rushed to the Museum Shop  and, as I’d hoped, found a replica for sale. I bought it and went back to the original on display, took out my replica and held it up to compare. It was very good. I have it displayed unsupported, just held up in sand, so I can grab it and hold it whenever I have the desire.


Guellol Lioness

I arranged most of the smaller pieces in a long, glass-covered box, these artifact replicas nestled in fine sand. On the left are the two Venus of Lespugue replicas, the black-and-white of how it exists today, with a reconstruction of how it must originally have been. The rest are venus and animal figurines.


So one can imagine how excited I was when our Museum managed to gather a large collection of replicas on loan from European museums for a temporary exhibit showing them in their historical and intellectual context. Of course I visited the display numerous times.

So one can imagine how excited I was when, a couple of years later,

our Museum managed to gather a large collection of

original pieces

on loan from various European museums for a temporary exhibit!

Before the objects were put on display for the public, I entered the exhibit space and spoke with one of the anthropologists in charge.

“I know that I can view the objects as much as I like once they’re in cases behind glass, but could I see them without the barrier of plexiglass hoods, with nothing but air between them and me?”

He took me into the locked vault where the pieces were being stored before installation. He locked the door behind us. He unlocked a large metal cabinet. I noted that there was thick carpet on the floor and the nearby tables—in case some anthropologist dropped one! He pulled out a large flat tray. There they were!

“Wow!” I said. “This is the thrill of a lifetime!”

“Would you like to pick them up?”

“Me?!” Not even with gloves! “Pick them up”?

He smiled and nodded ascent.

I picked up the Venus of Lespugue. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.


I picked up the bison licking its flank. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.


I picked up several other originals, all over twelve thousand years old

that I’d only seen in photos in books.

Tears in my eyes, I thanked him profusely. “I cannot believe it!”

“Consider it a perk of working at the Museum.”




1 Comment

  1. Tom says:

    Hi Gene, just a few words to let you know that I really enjoyed the Shep reading series. I’d never heard any of it in his radio broadcasts. Shame, isn’t it? Once the Baby Boomers are gone, reading books for pleasure will pretty much fade into history, much like writing letters did.

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