I taught myself to read (from televison commercials) when I was three. No big deal. I thought everyone taught themself how to read, like learning to ride a bike or brush your teeth. What was a big deal was finding something to read. I read street signs, TV commercials, medicine bottles, cereal boxes, but what I wanted was books.
Books were not so easy to come by in the late 50's early 60's if you were a middle class kid living a middle class suburb. Hard to believe...but if unless you lived in a big city, or were just really lucky, there were no book stores. No Amazon. No chain stores. Not even libraries.
OK, I had some Golden Books (the grocery cash register impulse buy before there were People, US and The National Enquirer.) Just to weigh in, my favorite Golden Book was Richard Scarry's Bunny Book. My aunt gave us her set of Childcraft. I didn't stop with the poems, fairytales and novel excerpts. I was so book hungry, I read all the child psychology and child rearing volumes as well. I was probably the only kid in first grade who could use the term "sibling rivalry" in a sentence. My eldest cousin gave me a beautiful anthology of children's literature that I still have (along with the Childcraft, 1948 edition). By first grade I had discovered the "book department" at E.J. Korvette's and Zayre's, which consisted entirely of the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries.
That was it. That was all there was. I got desperate enough to buy "antique" editions of the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Honey Bunch when my mom took fou antiquing with her.
So where were the books? A very good question. The only bookstore I knew was the Scribner bookstore in the Chicago Loop, where I saw my allergist four times a year. (My mother told me it was a museum of books...you could look but you couldn't buy. She said the same thing about Marshall Field's toy department.) Our 'burbs did not have libraries. The elementary schools did not have libraries. They had a shelf in the back of the room with maybe twenty books, that was designated "the classroom library." When my teeny tiny town finally opened a library, it was a closet-sized space, wedged between a pizza parlor and a dry-cleaners. (The smell of mozzarella and dry-cleaning fluid can still make me misty-eyed.) Because the children's section consisted of one book case, I was only allowed to check out two books at a time. I often finished the first book on the ride home in the car. Then we moved to another town that literally had no library. However, for some reason, in the summer, you could check books out of the junior high school library. Which I did.
The only things that kept me sane were the book clubs. The Scholastic Book Club flyers that were passed out in class were the high point of any school week. I spent hours selecting and reselecting the two dollars worth of books I was allowed each time. (Considering the top price for a book was 45 cents, I made the most of those two bucks!) I still have those brittle paperback copies of the Lee Wyndham Susie ballet books (beginning a life-long love of dance), and assorted Newbery titles (my favorite was Blue Willow by Doris Gates.) The Weekly Reader also had a book club that sent hard covers, one a month (no choice allowed; they just sent "appropriate grade level reading.") I saved those as well--Ruth Gannett's My Father's Dragon, C.W. Anderson's Whitey and Josie books, Miska Miles' Dusty and the Fiddlers and Parsifal Rides the Time Wave by Nell Chenault. Some of these were not books I would have chosen myself, but they were books and I read and re-read and cherished them.
Every now and then I stumbled across a sympathetic soul. My father was tracking down the complete set of Will Durant's History of Civilization in Chicago's used bookstores. He would sneak me in whatever he found in the children's section...mostly biographies. (And what do I read today, besides children's books? Biographies and memoirs.) One of my aunt's had fallen heir to a large collection of children's books from the 1920's that she passed along to me. My grandmother had an odd copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn floating around her house that she gave me. (My first real adult book...and one of my all time favorites.) And as I have mentioned in other blogs, for Chirstmas my dad gave me hardcovers of Charlotte's Web and Mary Calhoun's Depend on Katie John.
We moved to Jackson, Mississippi when I was ten. Since all the adults in my life acted as if we were moving to The End of the Earth, I figured there would be no libraries. Wrong!
Not only was there a library, but there were branch libraries, although I always preferred the spacious children's room of the main library downtown. Not only that, but you could check out as many books as you could carry. I learned to stagger out the door with enormous stacks of books (thus preparing me for my future career as a librarian). Just for a bonus, all my schools had excellent libraries as well.
Still, the only bookstores around where used paperback trade-in places, which I visited on my way home from the library. They were heavy on Harlequin and Grace Livingston Hill romances, but I managed to find some classics and the books that were made into movies. The first real bookstore I encountered was Lemuria Books, which opened while I was in high school. True heaven! Lemuria has changed locations three times since that first visit, but it is still alive and thriving, and I visit (and pillage) every time I visit my dad. (I also had my first book signing there, too.) Sometimes I go there to think...kind of like church. Sometimes I sit in the same chair that my hometown idol, Eudora Welty, also sat in.
Given my book "deprived" childhood, it is no surprise that I now own more books than some branch libraries. I took them with me when we moved to Bangkok in 1997, because I knew there was no English language library, and only one Japanese-owned, English language bookstore. Movers pale whenever we relocate. ("Books are heavy," someone always comments in a glum sort of way.) I can't help it. I am a compulsive reader, and life doesn't seem worth living if I don't have a book (or two or three) that I am currently reading.
So let's hear it for First Book!!! There are still children out there with no ready access to books, let alone the opportunity to own one. I like to think that your responses to our blog, will ease the pain of another frustrated bookworm out there. So get on board with our Holiday Donation! For every blog comment we receive (one per person, please and span doesn't count), we will donate $1 to First Book, which provides books to low-income children. We all love books here, right? Remember the thrill of the very first book you owned? Share that thrill with the rest of us on the blog, and help make another reading child's wish come true.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman