02/21/2011 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Books Kept Me From Burning in Hell

For all the complaining I've done about my Catholic school education, I'm thankful for at least one of their policies - the required summer reading list.

My public school friends didn't have to read anything over July and August. After summers of nonstop fun, they pretty much had to learn the alphabet all over again come September.

Not me. My literacy stayed sharp with half a dozen books every summer, assigned by the teachers at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, New York.

Good books, too, but there was a definite strategy behind the works they assigned.

Take the reading list for the summer after my freshman year, which included three remarkable books: In Cold Blood, A Separate Peace and Death Be Not Proud.

In Cold Blood is Truman Capote's masterpiece, the story of two ex-cons who murdered an entire family in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. Among the murder victims were two teenage children, both shot in the head.

I remember reading that book in bed one night and hearing a rustling in the bushes outside. A cat howled, and I jumped so high I nearly bashed my head on the ceiling.

A Separate Peace is another masterpiece by John Knowles, the story of a friendship between two teenagers at a New England prep school during the war years. In this book the brave, athletic hero dies suddenly after he breaks his leg. A bit of bone marrow floats to his heart and kills him.

I started getting chest pains, and wondered what the hell might be floating around in my bloodstream, waiting to plug up my heart.

Death Be Not Proud is a memoir by John Gunther about his courageous son Johnny, a lovable kid who suddenly falls ill with a brain tumor and dies in his teens.

Every time I got a headache... well, no need to finish that sentence. Suffice it to say there were not a lot of laughs from my required reading that summer.

But the message from those three books was clear, all right: Forget that you're young! You could still die any minute, and stand before God's judgment! For heaven's sake, be a good boy!

So I tried to be good, as good as any fourteen year old kid can be, and with a burning face I went to confession, shut my eyes and fessed up to hormonal hijinks that probably weren't even sins. Then I did it again, and confessed it again, until at last I reached a point where I was either going to be sorry or satisfied.

I chose satisfied, and that was that. I stopped being a devout Catholic.

But I remain a devout reader. For that I am forever thankful to Holy Cross High School. Maybe they couldn't sell me on the Good Book, but I'm still a sucker for good books.

Charlie Carillo's latest novel is "One Hit Wonder," which, sadly, is not on anyone's required reading list. His website is He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."