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A LIFE IN BOOKS
6 May 2006
I remember babysitting for a family one night when I was in college. Either the TV was broken, or they didn't have one. I don't remember now, but when my babysitting charge went to sleep, I decided that I'd just borrow one of the books in the house to read while I waited for Mom to return home.
Problem was--I couldn't find any books. The bookshelves were filled with decorative knick knacks, the mantle over the fireplace was empty. There were no stacks of books on the coffee table or the end tables. There were no bookcases in the bedroom. I was incredulous.
A home without books?
I think that was the first time that I realized that there are actually some people who don't read. Anything.
I am a product of a mixed marriage: a reader and a non-reader. My father once read Away All Boats, a classic of Naval Literature (Amazon.com tells me). I'm not sure why he read it, except that he always wanted to be in the Navy and travel by ship, but he was 4F because of his asthma, so never got the chance.
My father's reading a real book was such an event that we teased him about that book for the rest of his life.
My mother, on the other hand, was (and still is) a great reader, and she passed along her love of books to Karen and me. There are still books on her shelf that I remember seeing on the bookshelves in our house when I was a kid (she's moved many times since then, including divorcing my father and remarrying, so it's not just that the books have never moved).
When she became a Catholic, she began reading a lot of religious books (which she still does). There were books by Thomas Merton (Seven Storey Mountain, No Man Is an Island, Seeds of Contemplation) and Bishop Sheen (Life is Worth Living, Life of Christ) on the shelves along with books like Mrs. Miniver or Song of Bernadette.
She always read stories to us. We had a set of "red books," which were filled with short stories that I remember to this day--the story of the Chinese family who lived in a place where it was forbidden to eat pork, but when their barn burned down and they accidentally stuck their finger into the side of a pig who had burned in the fire and when they stuck their finger in their mouths to cool the burn, they discovered how good cooked pork tasted. I think they burned down several barns in order to justify eating pork (can't quite remember the end of that story).
There was the story of the kid who met the man in the moon and soiled his white robe by touching it with his dirty hands, which is why you see splotches on the moon when you look up into the sky (this was, of course, before anybody ever even thought of landing on that celestial body and exploring its dark craters). I was terrified of the moon for a time, fearing that the man in the moon was going to get me.
There was Bozo the Button Buster, by Carl Sandberg, the story of a man who wore buttons all over his clothes, but was so fat that his clothes wouldn't stay buttoned and the buttons kept flying off of them, and another story about a cat who ate too much and got huge.
So many stories. I still have those books, but could never get my kids interested in them, though they had their own special books that we would read together. For a time, Jeri's favorite book was a little book called "I'm Susie," which Jeri always asked for by saying "I'm DOOBIE!"
Story time when our kids were little were never what I always dreamed they would be. It was a routine I felt very strongly about and always pictured all of us sitting around together every day reading stories, even after the kids got old enough to read their own books. But I never took sibling rivalry into account, and story time always turned into fistfights about who got to sit closest to Mommy so story time finally stopped because it always ended up with everybody angry and me wondering why what I thought would be a fun thing to do together went so wrong. Maybe that's why my kids never read as passionately as I did when I was growing up. Jeri was a reader, but even Jeri didn't seem to have the passion for books that I did. David was the only real "reader" in the group and he devoured books the way I did. He was reading his way through Kurt Vonnegut when he died.
But just as things with books and our kids never worked out the way I envisioned them before I became a mother, I'm sure that there was that same sense between my mother and me.
Whenever I was sick, my mother would go to the library and bring home books for me. She brought home her favorite books, the books she loved when she was my age. I remember that one of her favorite books was Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which she presented to me with the reverence that one would give a precious jewel that was being passed down from generation to generation. I desperately wanted to love that book because my mother loved it so much, but I never could get into it. I never have read it, or any other Kipling.
My favorite place in the world when I was a kid was the library and I would bring home six books a week and return them the following week to bring home six more. Six was about all I could carry and still walk the 0.7 mile home, up a very steep hill.
The building of the Golden Gate Valley branch library was a long, thin building with rounded ends. It was divided into two sections, with the check-out desk in the middle. You entered up stairs that were directly opposite the front door. The children's section was to the right when you walked in and the adult section to the left. (One of my most embarrassing moments occurred in that building. If they had a public bathroom, I didn't know about it and I was too far from home to use the facilities, so I stood in front of the animal books and tried to look casual, while urine leaked down my leg and onto the floor...then I casually moved to the right, hoping nobody noticed that it was me who had peed on the floor.)
The categories of books that I remember devouring were anything about animals -- horses and dogs especially, and, when I got a bit older, books about young women training for interesting jobs, especially anything having to do with nursing.
I also read a lot of classic literature like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Little Women, Les Miserables, Tale of Two Cities and that sort of thing (oddly enough, I never read any Jane Austen). It makes me sad that kids today are exposed to a lot of classic stories on television because I think most kids have lost the patience to read Dickens or Bronte in its original form--and what a loss that is. They may know the plot, but they lose the "language" of the author.
When I finished reading all the books that interested me in the children's side of the library building, I moved into the adult section and started devouring historical fiction and then romance novels. I still remember the very first time I ventured tentatively into the adult section, feeling like at any moment someone was going to tell me to get back to the kids' section. I remember that the first book I took out of the adult section was an historical novel about Andrew Jackson.
When I was in grammar school, I rarely "played" at recess. There was a little "house," one of those structures built around an outside fan or garbage can or something. It was nestled over in the corner of the playground and I used to climb up on the top of it with a book and read while everyone else played. Occasionally the nuns would make me get down and get involved in a game, but mostly I preferred to sit off in the corner and read.
Nowadays, I always have at least two books going at all times, one of which is small enough to fit in my purse so that I always have something to read with me if I get caught unexpectedly with nothing to do. It's not unusual for me to have 3 or 4 books going at the same time, so whatever I read matches what I'm in the mood for at that time.
I don't read as much as I used to any more because I watch too much television, but I still try to finish a couple of books a month. No longer do I finish six books a week, but I rarely sit and read a book through from cover to cover in one sitting any more--unless it's something like a Dan Brown or a James Patterson (though I managed to finish 3 books on our trip to Boston and finished James Patterson's "Whiteout," which I bought at the Boston airport, before we landed in Sacramento).
I am addicted to books and can't seem to stop buying them. If I were to stop doing everything right now and do nothing but read until the end of my life, I wouldn't make it through what we have around here, when you consider that there is a huge room upstairs that is filled with books nobody has looked at in years. But still, I can't help myself.
I am so grateful that I was given the gift of reading when I was a kid. I wish I had been able to pass that same gift along to my kids.... but at least I have a daughter-in-law who is even more book-crazy than I am.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Nothing like a puppy to "help" with transcription -- Not.