by Cathy Allie
I had really good parents growing up, and looking back, they probably didn't mean to corrupt me; but when they supplied me with rich literature at a young age, they had no idea the impact it would have later, when I turned into a bibliophile. Truly, I am a lover and collector of books, and in full disclosure, pretty much anything I can read.
My earliest memory of reading was a board book of Eugene Field poems and stories. It featured Wynken, Blynken and Nod and The Sugar Plum Tree. It was beautifully illustrated with soft pastels, the way books of old were.
Nestled in the arms of my parents or my grandparents, after only a couple of reads, I already knew what would appear on the next page. Their fingers ran underneath the words as they read them, and soon, those words were ones I knew how to read on my own.
We got books for birthdays, Christmases, even tucked into an Easter basket or two. Golden Books graced our shelves in numbers too high to count. That collection alone would be worth a mortgage payment or two in today’s market.
Since I already knew how to read when I went to school, I was surprised when many peers did not. When we started into reading Dick and Jane books, my teacher sounded out the words and turned the pages ever so slowly, moving side to side for all of us seated on the floor to see.
The cadence of the words and the lack of text bored me. Who didn’t know the word cat for crying out loud? I wanted to hold the book and move at my own pace.
That’s probably why I began a short-lived criminal career when I popped up and snatched the book from the teacher and hid it. Luckily, that teacher was my mom (a perk of living in small town) and she found the book before the authorities could intervene.
At home and with family, I read street signs, and travel brochures, and cereal boxes, and instruction manuals for my toys. I read to my baby sister, one of the few times I can remember purposefully being nice to her.
Then came elementary school, and the SRA reading modules, with their colorful tabs. We took a test to see the level at which we would start reading, and then the teacher would give us a story on card stock labeled with a particular color. We answered comprehension questions to see if we could move through all the stories in that color, and then move to the next.
I loved the 64 Crayola box feel to the tabs, which once I breezed past the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, had names like lime, aqua, carnation, olive, lilac, violet, mahogany, plum, silver, bronze, and gold.
I was excited to read about Tarzan, heroes in the Navy, astronauts, Babe Didrickson Zaharias, the Presidents, life on the farm, flying an airplane, bank heists, madcap playground antics, and mothers who baked pies and set them on window ledges to cool, only to have them stolen by neighborhood thugs.
Selfishly, I wasn’t focused on my reading purely to improve my comprehension; I was driven to compete with other good readers in those years. When my teacher sent me to the box to pull a new color, I looked around to see who else had it. In my case, it was generally no one…except that old Jennifer Tucker.
I read at lightning pace and had good comprehension. Jennifer, in her snow white cardigan sweater and perfect auburn curls, did too. I finally got the jump on her one day when she had an upset stomach. The chocolate milk from lunch didn’t sit well with her, and she made elementary fame by throwing up in the hall. Her cardigan wasn’t so white anymore.
I marched right back into the classroom and snagged the tangerine SRA card she was getting ready to start on, and I never looked back. I heard she became an accountant, probably embarrassed to this day that I bested her. But the SRA stories were chosen for me, and it was when I had full reign of the library and could choose what to read, that I knew I had a problem.
I dutifully signed my name on the checkout cards, which the librarian, using her handheld inked date stamp, marked with a due date. If I was at school, I could hardly wait to read until I got home. I ignored math- and sometimes social studies—and let’s face it, science, just to spend time reading.
If I was with my parents, I started reading on the way home in our faux-wood paneled station wagon. At first it was Ramona Quimby, then quickly Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, and Little House on the Prairie. I would become 'bookklempt' when I reached the end of a series.
Those elementary years were also magical for me, as we lived in a neighborhood where they ran Book Mobiles, and library staff drove the books to us. Those of you who know my age are thinking how cool it must have been to have books delivered by horse-drawn carriage or a Model-T, but alas, it actually happened on beautiful, air-conditioned modern buses, somewhat like today's fancy RV's.
We marked the next Book Mobile dates on our calendars, and the morning of the visit, we raced on our banana-seated Huffy bikes to be one of the first readers to arrive so we had the best selection. The fact that parents didn't have to accompany us and oversee our book choices was an added bonus.
The only problem was that I read fast, so a bi-weekly Book Mobile visit wasn’t going to work for me. In a move I can only call crazy, desperate, and disobedient, I obtained information about a Book Mobile visit in an adjacent neighborhood, and I rode my bike across the four lane road separating the neighborhoods to meet it. Mom, if you are reading this, I am sorry. I promise it’s the worst thing I did as a kid.
During my junior high years, I took to reading books my parents had read in previous years and left sitting on the shelves, so I spent some time with paperbacks that may or may not have been an approved SRA reading level for me. I can remember reading Airport, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (for which I somehow also ended up owning a silver necklace), The Thorn Birds, Watership Down, and The Deep.
One summer I discovered Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery and hung out on hot July days by the pool with baby oil and iodined legs, and Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple as companions. Those novels exposed Nancy Drew for the amateur detective she was.
I suppose the only reading I did for a few years post junior high was high school and college textbooks and novels. To Kill a Mockingbird impacted me so profoundly I can still quote passages from it today. Actually being excited to own my own hard back copy of New Hopes for a Changing World by Bertrand Russell, suggested by a favorite teacher, solidified my nerdy bibliophile status.
Well-lit bookstores like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and B.Dalton beckoned us to malls, during my college years, but the only outside class reading I did was on the parking tickets I seemed to get almost every week at the dorm, makeup and fashion magazines, and my sorority's by-laws.
In class, Professor Herman Wilson beckoned me to world literature, and I dredged through it. It was likely the only time I experienced 'readgret' at having spent so much time reading something I didn't enjoy.
When I became an English teacher, I re-read the classics so I could teach them, surely creating lessons so much better than the ones my teachers had shared with me. As a single person, perhaps my commitment phobia led me through a period where I only read short stories and magazines, as a novel would perhaps have attempted to tie me down.
By the time I was a graduate student and working full time, I read for escape, needing a release from statistics class and course work, so there was no fiction book that was too silly or too trashy for me. And then I started to build my own library. And when I say build, I really mean amass.
I bought books at an alarming rate. Before online sales heightened, I snatched books off shelves like a stockpiler before a natural disaster. I rabbit trailed down religious roads, I became a groupie for multiple authors, I owned a How-To book on everything from plumbing issues to estate planning. I attended book signings, participated in chat groups, even had a chance to review a book for a friend turned author.
When my husband and I married, I imagined blending our lives and of course, our books. But he had so many. So, so many! And they covered history and sports and war and conspiracy theories. They had cracked spines and funny man-like smells about them.
I became 'shelfrighteous' and I morphed into a home-librarian, carefully separating such nonsense away from my books. In a cleaning fit, I once grabbed a short stack I had never seen him touch, must less look at, and I donated them.
Mind you, these books belonged to the man who never noticed when I replaced an entire room of furniture when he was gone for the weekend, but who miraculously, through some spidey-sense, knew I had purloined his page turners, vamoosed with his volumes, toted away his texts, bagged his bestsellers, filched his fiction. You get the idea. We are still married. Barely.
Now, as a semi-retired person, I have returned to the library-- the one you can actually walk in, and not online models for reading on a device. Paperbacks I check out just might have a chlorine splash or two on them from afternoons at the pool, because I still like the feel of the book in my hand; I just don't want to find a place for it and have to dust it next week-- or a month-- from now.
As I 'Marie Kondo' my house and possessions in a decluttering effort (I do still have HER book), I am parting ways with some of my collection, and it really is like saying goodbye to friends. Occasionally I pause long enough to convince myself that a book can stay. I think about a friend who might like it, or I even think about my daughter enjoying it someday.
Most moments I question my parenting skills, and those of you who are regular readers of this column no doubt question them as well. But my daughter Harper just recently asked for more shelves in her room on which to keep her books. She is a full-blown bibliophile as well, so I must be doing something right.
Cathy is a retired public school English teacher and Public Information Officer.