Blogs can be such wonderful things! Thank goodness for bloggers (far) less lazy than I, who share their own wonderful thoughts and discoveries plus give other writers the chance to chime in, too. Sara Grochowski, I am lo0king at you!
Sara blogs at thehidingspotblogspot.com, and she’s doing a lovely series on writers and their childhood reading. I’m lucky enough to be one of those writers she asked. Because, for mysterious and evil reasons, this page often refuses to post links, I’ll print my entry below. But please give yourself a gift and go to Sara’s blog to read the other posts, as varied and revelatory as the writers themselves.
I’m sitting on the floor of the A & P, beside a spin rack of Little Golden Books. My harried mother (I’ve got four younger brothers and sisters) is somewhere in the store, but I’m with the fish family, who are foiling a fisherman by hooking a big rubber boot on his line. I read this book every time we come grocery shopping. Now I wonder, why did such a silly story so deeply satisfy me? Maybe the theme of a family banding together to protect each other comforted me? Or maybe it was my favorite illustration, the one that showed the fisherman above and the fish family below at the same time. Two separate, simultaneous worlds: an idea that continues to fascinate me. I can’t remember ever worrying that the book would be sold and gone. Back then, if I loved a book, it belonged to me. Our relationship was exclusive, its world mine and no one else’s. I’d have been startled to see another kid reading my fish family book. Every week I re-read it, and every week I returned it to the rack until, at last, a miracle: my mother added its $.29 to the grocery bill.
No one ever had to encourage me to read. I’m one of the lucky, born to lose my way in words. The first book I could read was “Dick and Jane”. I loved Sally’s hair, which inspired a lifelong envy of curls, and Father’s dapper suits. A part of me knew these people weren’t real, but a much larger, uncontrollable part believed I knew them, and that somehow they knew me. As I grew, one of five kids in a crowded little house, no one paid any attention to what I read, and all my books came from the library. Once, when I was miserable with chicken pox, my friend Cynthia loaned me two of her books. Her books. She owned “Mary Poppins” and “Pippi Longstocking”. (Years later, I was jealous of her subscription to Seventeen Magazine, another unfathomable luxury.) I loved the stories, of course, but I think the reason they stand out in my memory is that the books themselves felt different. They were unlike library books, and not just because they lacked crinkly plastic covers. They had a different weight, an extra gravity. They were the first books I viewed not just as vehicles but as sacred objects in themselves. I remember thinking that Cynthia, who didn’t care all that much about reading, didn’t deserve them. Book lust. It was upon me.
For years I read solely for plot, for what would happen next. I got used to happy endings, and so I’ll never forget the shock of Flag’s death in “The Yearling”. That staggering blow to heart and mind! For the first time I thought, how could the author do that? I wondered it again when I read “Mrs. Mike” where two small children die of diptheria. (Looking up this title now, I see it was written for adults, so by then I must have infiltrated that section of the library). That life could be so fatally capricious and cruel was new knowledge for me. That a writer could face up to that knowledge and be brave enough to convey it was a revelation.
Later there was “Jane Eyre”, in the edition with Fritz Eichenberg’s terrifying wood engravings. Jane stole my heart. I loved that she was plain. I loved her conversations with Rochester. I considered the narrator unfair to the poor woman in the attic, and I pitied her fiery death. Most of all I loved the novel’s language, the earnest sentences with their semicolons and dashes and piled-on clauses building to an emotional crescendo that swept me up into a reading place I’d never been before. I was still crazy to know what would happen next, but now I also wanted to know why.
One last book: “A Girl of the Limberlost”. The copy I read had yellowed pages that gave off a whiff of mildew, calling up the swamp where Elnora hunted her specimens. Elnora and I both had complicated relationships with our mothers. Elnora’s was much meaner than mine, but both women hoarded their love, and were stingy with praise and affection. I remember reading the scene where Elnora’s mother, who bitterly opposes Elnora’s going to school, surprises her by packing an exquisite lunch for her to take. This scene opened some floodgate inside me. I understood how someone might love deeply but be unable to express it, how love takes many forms, how a good mother need not look like a TV mother. These were things I’d sensed in some deep, inarticulate place inside me, but now I had the words for them, and that made all the difference.
To turn the page and feel the world re-configure itself around you. To be a reader.