Friday, February 25, 2011

B is for Books (Alphabet Meme #2)

B is also for Bob, of course, but it's not as though I never write about him here. Then again, it's not as though I never write about books, either. But, oh well. Books are one of the few things that have been in my life forever, so books it is.

In fact, books have been in my life since the day I was born. I don't need to ask my mother to know that she did not go to the hospital to give birth in the days when doing so typically meant a week-or-so-long stay without taking a stack of books with her. I was the third child, so everything was old-hat and "easy" about my birth, or so she's told me (I can't imagine anything about birth being easy, but then again, I don't have several birth experiences to compare to each other). I like to imagine that because it was all so familiar and easy, that perhaps she even nursed me while reading, book in one hand, baby in the other. My mother is very adept at holding things like Georgette Heyer paperbacks in one hand. I learned my one-handed paperback technique from watching her.

Anyway, once we got home from the hospital, I was surrounded by books. I grew up in a house with books in every room but the dining room. Most of the rooms in our house had one wall devoted to books. We four children all had bookcases in our rooms filled with children's books. And the house also sported things like huge old secretaries with books behind glass doors. Having been raised in such a home, today, I don't feel that a home without books is truly a home.

Believe it or not, though, all these books in the house in which I was raised would be a source of embarrassment for me as I grew older and realized that most of my school friends lived in houses that were relatively book free. Don't let anyone tell you kids read much less these days than they used to. The dirty little secret is that kids didn't read in the "good old days" either. I lived a double life growing up, because I loved books as much as I do now. Yes, I was excited on Christmas morning to receive things like my stuffed Snoopy or my first sleeping bag, but the most exciting haul on Christmas day was a huge stack of books. Luckily, we could count on certain aunts and family friends who always gave each child a book (which meant more for us to read, because we shared them all) -- not to mention Santa, of course. I hid this love of books from the general public, though, from about the age of ten until I was in college.

When I was in junior high, I had to bring home a survey that asked all kinds of questions about my family's reading habits. I can still remember arguing with my mother over it, because I was low-balling all the numbers. I don't know why. None of my classmates were going to be privy to those answers. I guess it was just because the message had sunk in loud and clear: you're weird if you own a lot of books and read all the time. Our house was "weird," and I was not so keen on inviting my friends over to see it, which is why my older sister Forsyth will tell you that I was always off adopting other families when I was a kid. I wasn't really, but if I wanted to hang out with my friends, I preferred to do it at their houses rather than at mine, where I might have to explain why we had so many books (the irony in this is that once we were all grown up, I discovered that kids loved coming to our house, I think because things were quite lax there).

I have to admit that I did have certain friends who were in on my deep, dark secret, those with whom I swapped books and titles and who were as excited as I was when the Scholastic Book catalogs came and even more excited when the books arrived. By the time I was seven, I had learned that there is nothing. no. nothing. more exciting than getting a package of books in the mail, even when I knew they were coming (an experience duplicated these days by online shopping). My few book-loving friends and I had to pretend we weren't excited when our Scholastic books arrived, had to act as though our parents had made us buy these books (a complete lie on my part. The opposite was actually true. My mother frowned on wasting money on these cheap books that always fell apart when we had a house full of books I had yet to read and a public library we frequented).

Speaking of libraries, when I was in 7th grade, I was the first one on my school bus in the morning, and, the first one off in the afternoon. For some reason, when I was in 8th grade, they changed the route, which meant a much longer ride for me in the afternoon. At some point, I realized that the bus went right by the library, a 15-minute walk I took all the time, and that if I could get off the bus there, I would get home much more quickly than if I stayed on the bus until it got to my house. I asked the bus driver if she could just drop me off at the library. I had to get a special note from my parents, which they gladly gave. Truth be told? At least two days a week, I got home later than I would have if I'd ridden the bus, because I'd go to the library before walking home (making sure the bus had turned the corner, of course, before heading through its door).

Eventually, I got over my need to lead a double life. I'm happy to be someone who's a reader. Is it any wonder that when it came time to choose career paths, I chose those that involved books? Forget that psychology major (which, actually, comes in awfully handy when reading books), I was destined to work with books. Editing comes naturally to me and always has (except, as you all know, when I try to edit my own writing). Because I am a reader, acquisitions also comes naturally to me. It makes perfect sense that I am an acquisitions editor. It also makes perfect sense that I got a Masters in library science.

Finally, did you know that books are wonderful enhancements for the home? Home decor is not one of Bob's and my specialties, which I may have mentioned a time or two on this blog. In our house, we have tons and tons and tons of books. Really. They are everywhere (those of you who've been inside my home, please feel free to give your testimonies). Despite mismatched furniture that all desperately needs reupholstering (and not in a chic, old-money way, but rather in a we-have-no-control-over our pets way) and housekeeping and home repair habits that should bring to mind words like "abandoned" and "haunted," visitors have often used words like "relaxing" and "comfortable" when they describe our home. I am convinced that being surrounded by books is relaxing, so I surround myself with them (no, it doesn't work. I still find it very hard to relax -- unless, of course, I am completely immersed in a book). Somehow, the books are so relaxing that nobody seems to notice all the cobwebs and door handles that don't work, thus proving what we all know, which is that books have magical powers.

And, so there you have it: b is for books. I can't imagine my life without them.


litlove said...

Well naturally I love this post! And I completely agree - kids did NOT read more in the past. I was also the odd-one-out as a bookish child. I didn't discuss reading or books with friends until I was 13 or 14 and happened to find another voracious reader. We really were few and far between!

Rebecca H. said...

My idea of playing with my friend up the street was going over to her house so we could read books together. She sometimes went along with me, but sometimes insisted that we play regular-kid games. I didn't realize until much later how odd I was ... I can definitely back you up about the number of books in your house, and I love how they are spread throughout every room, so you're never out of sight of them.

Stefanie said...

Because I was such a teacher's pet in elementary school and they all encouraged me to read and their opinion was more important than my classmates', I embraced the weird as did my best friend. I was not shy about my excitement over the Scholastic catalog or the weekly class trips to the school library. Aside from my best friend though, none of my other friends talked books with me or had their own bookshelf in their bedrooms. In high school I really did feel weird but by that time it was too late to do anything about it but my non-reading friends didn't mind. I think I was kind of like a strange and quirky pet to them which is weird in itself and I am so glad high school is long past!

Bob said...

Emily, I loved reading this post but with some jealousy. You were born into a life of reading. My parents rarely read, did not encourage me (don't think I ever got a book from them as a present), but my father did subscribe to Readers Digest Condensed Books. How's that for a literary education? One thing I became very adept at once I found books myself (well into my high school years), was, like you, reading a paperback with one hand. It was the only way I could read on my way to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the IRT holding an overhead strap.

In my salad days as an editor I used to work with Ben Botkin, the great American folklorist and one of the leaders of the Federal Writers’ Project. I used to regularly visit his home -- Hastings on the Hudson as I recall -- and it was packed with books and bookshelves: every room including the bathroom. I always felt I was in a wonderland when I visited. It also helped that he was a warm, welcoming person, and his wife as well.

mandarine said...

I grew up surrounded by book too. In our 3 bedroom apartment, there were (still are) more than 40 linear feet of wall space filled with books from floor to ceiling.
And an awesome municipal library 5 minutes' walk from home.

The irony is: I never got to buy books. Either they were already in the house, or I could get them from the library.

The result is: I have hardly any books at home now. I only ever buy those books I am sure I want to reopen at least once a year, namely technical hands-on nonfiction like DIY, cooking and gardening. I do love to spend hours on end in a bookstore, always wanting to buy the whole lot, then shrinking the selection down to a handful of books, then two, then one, then none, unless I am convinced I will defeinitely need to read it more than once.

Come to think of it, the last time I walked out a bookstore with a fair stack of books was in NYC shopping for you and Dorr.

That will have to change, though, because my elder son is learning to read with such enthusiasm that I would not want to risk starving his motivation by being miserly on buying him books.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, it's wonderful that all we "few and far between" readers have been able to connect via blogging, though, isn't it?

Dorr, sounds like you had an extremely tolerant friend! My friends and I sometimes played the books we read, but I don't remember actually reading with any of them.

Stef, you sound like you were extremely cute. No wonder you were a teacher's pet, but yes, thank goodness high school is long past. I'd hate to go back there again.

Bob, I'm pretty sure that you have more than made up for any lack of literary training you suffered as a child. Ben Botkin's house sounds heavenly to me (location, books, friendly occupants, and all).

Mandarine, believe it or not, back when I worked in a library, my apartments were pretty much book-free, too. I had only one (relatively small) bookshelf, mostly for the "referenc-y" sorts of books you mention. My feeling was, "Anything I want, I can always get from the library." But, when I worked for the library, I didn't have to pay late fees. Once I stopped working there and discovered how infrequently I tended to finish any book within its 3-week loaning period, I began buying books again. And I've never stopped (as you could probably tell when you came bringing coals to Newcastle -- greatly appreciated coals. We always appreciate new coals in Newcastle). Glad to hear you've fathered at least one book worm. Won't you be lucky if you turn out to have two?