suppose I believe that I learned to read like I learned to breathe. That it was something that could not be recalled because it was either so embedded in my experience that I had no memory of it, or it was an involuntary reflex of my brain. My mother tells me that she read to me; that I began to learn to read in Miss Grogan’s Kindergarten class. But I retain no distinct memories of the “Bumper Book” that my mother has kept all these years on the shelf in the closet of my old bedroom. But somewhere along the way, I developed a love of reading. I became a true bibliophile in third grade when we were assigned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I still remember Wilbur’s proclamation of “Stupendous Pig” in Charlotte’s web. Then it was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who was the neighborhood child psychologist. Parents would come to her with their concerns. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle came up with ingenious cures for very ordinary problems. The chapters had titles like “The doesn’t like to bathe cure” or “The never wants to eat cure”. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cure for the little girl who never wanted to take a bath was simple. She told the parents to let their child get as dirty as she wanted to. They were to wait until the little girl had about a quarter inch of dirt on her arms and legs, and then, when she was asleep to go into her bedroom and gently push radish seeds into the dirt on her skin. Lightly water her and then wait for the results. The result, of course, was that the little girl started to sprout in a few days and began to grow radishes. Needless to say she decided to take a bath. We also read The Cricket in Times Square and I was so inspired by the friendship between the cricket and the cat that I bought a wicker cricket cage and tried to keep a cricket as a pet. It didn’t work-crickets don’t make good pets and my cricket certainly wasn’t like the cricket in the book.
I was lucky. My parents could afford to buy me books. And I had my mother buy me every book we read in class that year. Even though we read them in class, I still wanted to own them. And like the “Bumper Book”, I still have them to this day. I don’t know if those books made me love reading or the books themselves. All I know is, I began to love the physicality of books; having them, holding them, flipping through them. We did go to the library and I did check out several books at a time. I remember the smell of the books, the steel library shelves and I remember my first forays into the adult section. I became a serious book collector with the advent of the Nancy Drew Mysteries. First, I collected them all. Unfortunately, I don’t think I still have these, and like the multitudes of Barbie dolls and clothes that I once owned and I gave away, I really regret not keeping my Nancy Drew collection. I may not be able to correlate any thoughts or assumptions I made about myself after reading Charlotte’s Web or The Cricket in Times Square, but, looking back on it, I think I made some very clear decisions about who I was and was not after reading Nancy Drew. What I loved about Nancy Drew was her mobility. Now this is probably not what comes to mind for most girls when they read Nancy Drew. But when you live in the endlessly mundane suburbs where there is nothing to do or see, then you begin to appreciate Nancy’s adventures. In my neighborhood, you couldn’t go anywhere, not even on a bike. So what impressed me most about Nancy was her spirit of adventure and her willingness to tackle anything that came her way. I remember how she would hop in the shower before a big date or would leave the house in a moment’s notice, hot on the trail of another mystery. She lived her own life and did exciting things. In comparison, my life seemed very boring. Even worse, I began to see myself as a boring person living a boring life. I do not know how much of this belief was in reaction to Nancy’s adventures or just the results of comparing myself and my family to other families on the block. Whatever the true source of this feeling, It is one that has remained with me throughout my life and drives me even today. I refuse to live in the suburbs, anywhere.
Books remained my one and only diversion as I grew older, and in times of trouble, like being grounded, I turned to literature for my escape. In high school it was Trinity by Leon Uris and Studs Lonigan. I remember my 12th grade English teacher remarking on me reading Studs to the rest of the class. I was setting a good example.
Trinity sparked my first political forays. I was very impressed by the plight of the Irish in Northern Ireland and did my first research paper in college on the IRA. Again, the excitement and sense of identity gained from such a struggle appealed to me. I not only came from the suburbs, but I was a boring Wonder-white bread WASP to boot. At some point, I decided that I wanted to study literature. I was an accounting major and I possessed such a secret thrill to be able to take literature classes and excel in them. Although I did not always excel. I could not write about literature, which is what studying literature translated to. I owe my sophomore American Lit professor, Dr. Sorrentino, for showing me the way. He said that the hardest thing to do is to sit in front of a blank piece of paper. “Just write something, anything,” he said. He taught me how to read a poem. “Read it literally,” he said. We were reading Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”. “Picture a snake in the grass,” he said. He also had us memorize poems. Rote learning, he called it. It is how students used to learn, and, although it isn’t very popular in classrooms today, I still believe in its value. The beauty of literature is that, if you memorize lines, they are always with you. Words take on an immortality that a painting or a piece of music cannot. So my first “A” paper was about Huckleberry Finn and he commented on my “taking the classroom lecture a step further” in class. He taught me to think beyond what we discussed in class. I don’t know how he did it. No other professor inspired me the way he did. I credit him with igniting my love of literature. Books became literature. And if it was not for his class, I would not be here in graduate school, some twelve years later, getting a Masters’ degree in English.
As an undergrad, I continued to earn my accounting degree. I am not sure why I did not change my major to English, but in retrospect I am glad I did not. Although I worked as an accountant for several years after graduation, my love of books led me to quit my career and go to work in a bookstore. This is where the idea of books as things, as possessions, really took hold. My income was cut in less than half, but I didn’t care. I loved working at Chapter’s bookstore. I loved being around books, new books, old books and classic books. And I bought a lot of them. Books became furnishings, possessions, and decorations. Tennessee Williams wrote that each time you buy something you are hoping that, in its own way, it will be the one magical thing that will grant you eternity. And I suppose I believe that each book is a piece of something eternal. Within each book lies infinity; but it is infinity in a nice complete package. I like the completeness of books. I like their tidiness. I buy way too many of them and they are very heavy to move. Some I have sold or given away. But only when I absolutely had to. Thinning out the herd and making it stronger I suppose. Supposedly the only thing Susan Sontag has in her New York apartment are books, thousands of books, and a chair. I think books are furnishings. They make wherever I live, my home. I may not read them all, but it is comforting to know they are there when I need them. If I was stranded on a desert island, I would want the entire Penguin Classic series with me.
Maybe I owe Charlotte’s Web or Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tribute for my love of books and reading. I know I owe Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for my enduring love of literature, of writing as true art. I carry my copy of The Sound and the Fury like some people carry a rabbit’s foot. There is something I love so much about books themselves, even the textbooks I had in elementary school. I remember in fourth grade my social studies textbook was a big thing with bright pictures, and somehow I got a hold of a new edition by trading with someone else. I carried that book with me everywhere, even in the car. I was very dejected when during a routine check of textbooks (you were assigned one at the beginning of the year), the teacher discovered that I had the wrong one. She made me exchange it for its older, worn-out counterpart. Around the same time I wrote an essay where I made the declaration, “Everything I have ever learned, I learned from reading books”. And my teacher circled this and put a question mark next to it as if to say “Didn’t you learn anything from your teachers?” I suppose I did, but it is the books and the stories I remember.
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