Growing Up In A Mansion Of Words
I was reminiscing recently about the Scholastic Book Club from my elementary school days. The fun of poring through the cheap newsprint catalog and trying to choose among the best books, the anticipation of waiting days and weeks to finally get the books delivered to your classroom, and then the enjoyment of digging through the newfound book booty and deciding which ones to read first.
Some of my friends had a quantity limit, they were allowed to buy a maximum of two or three books from the catalog. Others had a monetary budget, they could spend $5, $10, or even $15 on whatever they wanted.
The rule in my house was a little different. There was no numeric limit to my choice, nor a monetary limit — the only rule handed down from my mother regarding my selections was this:
I had to read everything I bought.
Rather than reduce the number of books I bought, I trained myself to read faster so that I could buy more of them. My mother never complained about the money she paid for my books, and I never realized until later in life just how tight things were financially for my family while I was growing up.
I was raised (along with my two siblings) by a single-mother who worked two jobs (sometimes three) to make sure we all had what we needed (and a little left over to treat us to some things we really didn’t need). No matter how late she worked, she always seem to have time to read to us each night. Usually from three different books for her three very different children. We also lived with my grandmother who worked full-time until several years past standard retirement age. I remember Gram in her default location sitting at the kitchen table solving the daily crossword and decoding cryptogram puzzles from the newspaper. I was the only one in the family who could consistently defeat Gram at Scrabble. When she passed away too many years ago, her ancient Scrabble board game and worn crossword puzzle dictionary (barely held together by a rubber band and some yellowing scotch-tape) were the only things I asked for from her belongings.
I grew up in a house that valued words.
As long as you were reading on your own, official report card grades were a secondary concern. Every summer I participated in the summer reading program at my local library — The Fleet Branch Public Library. They closed the old library and opened a new branch a few years after I moved away from Cleveland. I’m a little proud that I’ve actually never been inside the “new” building. Too many of my childhood memories are tied to the original location. It wouldn’t be the same. I think they should have changed the name. I read more books over a single summer than I think most kids read during the entire school year. I practically lived at the library and would beg to stay within its cool and musty environs every spare moment. At not much more than 10 years old, I was volunteering to help “the little kids” pick out books and frequently put on puppet shows retelling favorite stories (and sometimes an original work or two.)
Another rule in the house was that if you didn’t know something, you had to look it up rather than simply ask her or my grandmother about the topic. Anything from how to spell or define a word to the name of a state capital got you pointed toward the bookshelves. I remember every time I intended to reference the books for the answer to a single question, I always seemed to end up learning something in addition because my eye would be caught by a nearby entry or chapter (pretty tricky, mom). I also recall that we had one seemingly massive and old dictionary we’d all use, but one year I got a copy of a paperback Thesaurus of my very own. I loved/adored/cherished that book, and since that time I’ve also liked using a thesaurus more than a dictionary.
My mother invested in two different sets of encyclopedias, the traditional World Book collection and a second set carried the Disney brand and was aimed at young readers called “Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge“. The volume on greek mythology was my favorite, and it featured Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa on the cover. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the fantastic stories within or chasing my younger sister around with the cover because it terrified her (I think she’s still afraid of it!)
I don’t think we had much in the way of luxuries growing up. I don’t think we had a home telephone until I was around 12, and we had a black and white television until I was in my teens. I never knew what designer jeans were until we moved to a new neighborhood (and a new tax bracket) as I entered middle-school, but I always remember there being money for books. It wasn’t seen as an expense. They were an investment.
We could have probably built a house out of all the bookcases we had, with expansive rooms constructed from the hardcover and paperback building blocks crammed beyond capacity on their shelves.
I told my mother the other day just how much growing up with access so many books and the encouragement to go out and read even more of them had meant to me. I could tell she was touched. We didn’t always have the easiest life (and I certainly wasn’t always the easiest child to deal with) but it seems like much of our life was bound together not just by blood, but also by words on pages and the glue binding them together.