It’s amazing how many of my early memories concern books. I grew up a block from a library, at least until its old doors closed and a new building was constructed much further away. I remember rainy summer afternoons when I was four or five or six, when we couldn’t play outside or swim. My mother walked with me to the library and read me a stack of picture books. It was a perfect day. (My notion of perfect days has evolved. I recall having a bash watching a Battlestar Gallactica marathon with my youngest daughter one sleepy afternoon).
A bit older, I was able to walk to the old library myself, and every week I withdrew stacks of books. I was not in much danger of late fees. I was enticed by the Betsy books, and for a long time Snowbound with Betsy by Carolyn Haywood was my favorite. I was omnivorous. There was one imprint that featured books about the childhoods of JFK and Babe Ruth and other famous figures and another that was about fictional Civil War soldiers. Matt Christopher’s stream of baseball books enraptured me. Even before bucket lists existed, I became infatuated with lists. I tried to read every Newbery winner, although there were a number that were unreadable and whose receipt of the prize remains a mystery. (Yes, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I am talking about you). My friend gave me her used copies of Classics Illustrated Comics. My mother disapproved of these (but oddly took no issue with my reading Superman and Archie), but there are uses for a garage that housed everything except a car. It took awhile, but I eventually learned that the Count hailed from Cristo, not Crisco.
I found an imprint of classic literature designed for children and began to read my way through that list. By the time I got to junior high, I was ready for the hard stuff. I recall reading with a friend McKinley Kantor’s Andersonville (about the Civil War prison) and Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (about Michelangelo.) These were both 700+ page novels, both bestsellers. Andersonville had won a Pulitzer. We congratulated ourselves upon our graduation from the children’s room. I interchanged middle and highbrow. Herman Wouk was as fun as Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy (Anna Karenina supplanted Betsy on the top of my faves along with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men), Dickens, and Gogol. I waged regular reading races with my father, himself an avid reader, to see who could read the most pages in an hour.
Although I had regularly read random pages of my dictionary, it gradually dawned on me that books were also sources of information about whatever interest I might suddenly acquire. Every Saturday I walked the mile and a half to the new library and spent the afternoon. I learned about the occult, Tarot cards and the Salem witch trials. I read the Communist Manifesto. (I also spent an enjoyable afternoon devouring Love Story.) The heavy brown books in the back of the library turned out to be Supreme Court reporters, volumes in which every ruling from the Supreme Court is recorded, and I began to read the occasional decision. I boned up on the Warren Court. In the end, I wrote my college essay about Branzburg v. Hayes, in which the Supreme Court ruled that newspaper reporters did not have a privilege against giving testimony. A first step, but I had not yet reached the fork on the road to the bar.
Let’s hear about your early reading experiences and your paths to the fork in the road. What inspired you to be a reader? And what’s your idea of a perfect afternoon?