Like all the bright little colored boys and girls whom I knew when I was growing up in the 50's, I wanted to be a doctor. More accurately, my mother raised me to be a doctor. In a thousand ways, some subtle and some not so subtle, my mother implanted the idea that the sole calling worthy of the name was that of the physician. I do not use that word ''calling'' lightly. For my mom, physicians -- those masters of the cabalistic mysteries of universes seen and unseen -- were not only the most richly endowed among us, but they would, accordingly, be richly rewarded both in this life and the hereafter. If God had a true representative on Earth, it was the physician, the healer, the medicine man, master of pain and its relief. And so it was that I came, early on, to fasten on a career in medicine. My love of science and math made such a career choice seem natural. That I loved literature, that I loved to read, and that I loved to listen to my father's mischievous stories -- bone-shaking, funny stories (''lies'' my mom called them) about people we knew (especially my mom's nine brothers and two sisters) and people we didn't -- did little to unsettle my determination to become a doctor. No, literature was my avocation, something I engaged in for sheer pleasure, and for the way it conjured a world even larger and more various than Piedmont, W.Va.
Books were magic carpets, transporting me through space and time into worlds of love and yearning and betrayal, worlds of Gothic cathedrals and Victorian manor houses, worlds of the fiercest ideological passions and, eventually, when I became a teenager, worlds of sensual women and lusting men. Books brought me to these worlds, and these worlds to me. Not to worry: doctors could afford lots of leisure time; I would practice medicine in the day, and I would read at night. But it was not these worlds of fantasy -- brought into our two-bedroom cottage in the Allegheny Mountains courtesy of the school library or the bookmobile --...
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