Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The First Book I Ever "Owned"

Ever since I was a girl, I've dreamed of living in a house with its own library. You know-- the kind of room wealthy people in movies always have, with floor-to-ceiling-built-in bookshelves and a rolling ladder to reach the top shelves.

The fantasy was inspired not only by my love of reading, but also by the fact that we had very few books in our house when I was growing up.  (One of the few I can recall was a light blue softcover my father studied to prepare for his "citizenship" test.)  For my working-class Italian-immigrant parents, books were a luxury we couldn't afford.

Then one day when I was around ten years old, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman rang our front bell. You can imagine my amazement when the salesman managed to convince my father to buy a brand-new 20-volume set of the World Book Encyclopedia. I don't know how the salesman did it, but he was my new hero! And since my younger sister and brother were too young to read at the time, I considered the set mine.

As nerdy as it may sound, I loved reading those books. We didn't have the Internet back then, and a trip to the public library meant taking two buses each way. So having my own encyclopedia was indeed a luxury. I used it not only to research class assignments, but for recreational reading, too. I never read a volume from front to back as you would a novel. Instead, I flipped the pages until something struck me as interesting.

I tell students at school visits that my favorite volume was the letter "B," and it's true. As a girl, I pored over the color photographs of Birds and Butterflies from around the world. I studied the rules of Baseball and memorized the stats of many of the record-holders. (I believe Joe DiMaggio still holds the record for the longest consecutive hitting streak at 56 games.) I learned the hand signals for right and left turns on a Bicycle.

Those books held more than information for me. They took me places I could only dream of visiting. They introduced me to presidents, poets, and painters. They sparked my curiosity in mathematics and music.

As I grew older, I became more interested in reading fiction and drifted away from the encyclopedia.  But every so often, I still went back to my old World Books. And every time, I inevitably learned something new and interesting from their pages.

I'm happy to say I still own that set of encyclopedia--you can see it pictured here:

Now, whenever I pull out the "B" volume, I'm reminded of how it felt to be ten years old and own not only one book, but a whole set of 20. I was the richest girl in the world!

* * * * *
This is the last in our series of posts for the National Day on Writing, sponsored by NCTE. I will be submitting this entry to the "A Lifetime of Reading" Gallery of the National Gallery of Writing. I hope you'll use the following Writing Workout to inspire your own contribution to the gallery.

Writing Workout
The first book I ever owned . . .

What's the first book you recall as your very own? Was it a picture book, a reader, a novel? Was it brand new, or a hand-me-down? Who gave it to you? What memories are evoked when you think about that book?

Post the title of the book as a comment here on our TeachingAuthors blog, then write a 250-500 word description, essay, or anecdote about the book. When you're done, I encourage you to submit your piece to the gallery called "A Lifetime of Reading," curated by Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, who blog at A Year of Reading. You can read more about the gallery at their blog.

Happy writing!


Nina Johnson said...

I too loved our set of enclyclopedia. It was American People Encyclopedia and was a warm rich brown color.

I also loved these little magazine type books that one glued pictures into. I don't remember the name but I do remember the picture of a caterpillar very well.

And how many of us remember the dictionaries that we bought piece by piece from the grocery store. The book ended up almost a foot thick when it was done.

Thanks for bringing up these great memories.

InfiniteFreeTime said...

The Day of the Wind by Robert Pierce.

A hand-me-down, but I learned to read using this book when I was 4 (my 12-year-old sister was an awesome teacher). Because this book taught me the joy of reading, I felt it was MINE.

I now lead a tortured life of wanting to make all books MINE - but sadly I do not have the room or money. I am a frequent guest at our local library.

Rebekah said...

Charlotte's Web was my first book. I remember my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Gross (who I thought was the most beautiful woman in the world) read it aloud to us everyday before school ended. I will never forget how she cried at the end - the first time I saw an adult shed tears in the presence of children. I bought Charlotte's Web at the Scholastic Book Fair that year and read it over and over. I still cry at the end...

Jeanne Marie Ford said...

My first book was one of The Bobbsey Twins series. It was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. The grandmom who lived with us was functionally illiterate, but my the book-gifting grandmom was a Reader. (Yes, her tastes tended toward Danielle Steele, but she always had a book in hand.) My mother, who was emphatically not a reader, read me the whole Bobbsey Twins series. And for some weird, magical moment in my childhood, wherever we moved, every other girl my age was also reading them. (I think the series had been reissued around this time, and the books were also being sold in military PXs. Perhaps only fellow military brats read them, but I digress.)

I still own the whole series, and I can't wait to share them with my daughter! The original books in this series were, of course, published before my grandmother was born -- talk about speaking across the generations.

And Carmela, we had a 1967 Encyclopedia Brittanica set. (I was born in 1971.) I longed for the World Book! My mom (child of Italian immigrants) grew up with only a Dick and Jane book in the house. She is going to love your family story!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your "first book" stories.
Nina, I'm so glad to know I'm not the only encyclopedia-loving writer!
Michelle, I think it's great that you wrote a blog post in response to my question. If others would like to read it, see

Clare Gage said...

My parents bought a twenty volume maroon covered encyclopedia set while on their honeymoon on the island of Jersey in the Channel Isles off the coast of France in 1956. I came along in '57 and was soon followed by three other siblings who devoured those books when we all reached reading age. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, those books no longer exist. We literally read them to death. And while I do remember loving those volumes of knowledge, it was only when a library card was put in my hands that my world truly opened. There was no public library in the area where I grew up, but once a week the mobile library came and parked at the bottom of the hill. I would watch the clock at school on book bus days and long for the bell to ring so that I could run home and then down the hill for the next book in Noel Streatfield's 'shoes' series; tennis shoes, ballet shoes, theatre shoes, dancing shoes. Noel let me wear all those shoes and any other shoes that I could imagine that were better than my own. Ironically, I never owned a single one of her books, but at this very moment I want to go out and buy the whole set.

Carmela Martino said...

What a marvelous story, Clare. I love the idea that you literally "read them to death." I don't know Streatfield's books, but I think you should go out and buy at least one, if not the whole set!