Who remembers the moment when their love affair with books began? For me, it started before I was old enough to develop explicit memories. My mother and father read to me as an infant. There’s an old black and white photo of me as a toddler, sitting in a chair and holding a book. My head is down and I’m turning a page. My father took it. It’s one of those square photos from a Brownie camera, with the scalloped edges.
I liked books too much, or so said one of my aunts. “Karen needs to play outside more,” Aunt Janie admonished. “Her head is always stuck in a book.” Mom disagreed.
She took great pleasure in my early reading ability. And when I started picking up big books – like Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins -not just the skinny little Golden Books, she took me down to the Ferguson library and I got my own library card. It wasn’t long before she began helping me choose books from the Adult Fiction stacks.
She tells the story of how I’d try to take more books at a time than the library allowed. One of the librarians clucked at us when I placed a tall stack on the counter, saying, “You can only have these for two weeks.” Mom replied, “Don’t worry. She’ll read them.”
When I think about why I was such a young bibliophile, I know that part of the reason was that I am an only child. I didn’t have a lot of playmates. My mom worked outside the home, and in the 50’s and 60’s that wasn’t such a common thing. There wasn’t daycare for young children, just babysitters, so Mom found a private school that would take me into Kindergarten at 4 years old. It helped that I was already an accomplished reader.
Today, I tried to recall as many of the special books that I read early on as I could; the ones that made me want to keep reading and start writing my own stories. There was one in particular that I read very early, at my mother’s suggestion, that I still recall distinctly. I remember more than the title and author and subject. I can even recall the size and color of the binding. I think I might have been 8 or 9 years old when I read it.
See, Mom was a high school graduate with her own love of reading. She read novels and non-fiction. She liked Shakespeare and Hemingway. She attributed her broad taste in literature to her high school English teacher’s influence. But she didn’t really consider whether or not I was “ready” for certain subjects. And so she gave me a copy of John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony.”
It was so beautiful and at the same time, such a disturbing story. I related to Jody and his love for Gabilan. The terrible sequence of events that led to the red pony’s death haunted me. But I didn’t give up on the book. And, ultimately, I read more of Steinbeck’s work – “Cannery Row,” “Tortilla Flats,” and “East of Eden.” I developed a deep affection for his style, which led me to other writers of his era.
My mom is 89. Still healthy and vibrant, but with macular degeneration. She can’t read like she used to. The words on the page jump around and splinter. She says its like looking at an image through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes I read to her, but she mourns her independence.
And so, on this World Book Day I just want to say, Thanks, Mom. You gave me a gift more delightful and precious than any tangible thing. The love of books.