I come from a family of readers. When I was a child, my mother, sister and I always carried a book to the table at meal times. My mom would ban the books periodically and insist that we talk to one another, but the books always creeped back. The truth was that we preferred reading to speaking.
Libraries were very important places. The first one that I can recall was located just off the Public Square in Lancaster, KY, a couple of miles from my grandfather’s farm. I devoured the offerings for children (boys), mostly allegories posing as biographies of “Golden Age” athletes like Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones and Red Grange. The other patrons were usually women–I never saw a man in the place–clamoring for the latest popular novel: God’s Little Acre, Peyton Place, From The Terrace. I read them, too, later in life, and became a life-long John O’Hara fan. That little library is still there, and its collection has spilled over into the building next door.
When I was ten, we moved to Chapel Hill, NC. The public library there was situated in an old house on West Franklin Street, between the Baptist Church and the town’s only elementary school, soon to become Chapel Hill Junior High School. The house was built after the Civil War by an ancestor of one of Chapel Hill’s modern icons, the entertainer James Taylor. I knew James when we were kids, but had no idea that his family had once lived in the library. My taste in books by then was sports fiction, most especially the novels of John R. Tunis. [Note: I recently bought several Tunis books (The Kid From Tomkinsville, World Series, The Kid Comes Back, All American and Go, Team, Go!) for my grandson, Henry. Reading them is truly a trip back in time, writing-wise. They are totally without irony–every word is meant to be taken seriously.) I also ventured into other, less predictable, “genres.” I met Travers’ Mary Poppins, Dixon’s Hardy Boys, and the denizen’s of Grahame’s Toad Hall. Lewis Carroll’s books delighted me. I was unaware of the social commentary and controversy over Carroll’s “relationship” with Alice, the daughter of an Oxford don–I just loved Wonderland and the other side of the Looking Glass.
When I started high school, the books I wanted to read were replaced, in part, by books I was required to read. Novels like A Separate Peace (tolerable), Moby Dick (not so much) and that one-two punch, Heart of Darkness/A Secret Sharer (not) came with serious discussion and examinations, as did the plays (a sampler of Shakespeare, Death of a Salesman, Golden Boy) and poems (epics all, though I can’t remember any of them). I don’t know if it’s still done the same way, but for me the “teaching” of literature was counter-productive. I had not lived nearly long enough to appreciate what those authors were trying to say. The themes and allusions and word-smithing were lost on me. During this period I got my reading fix from the “adult” authors mentioned earlier: John O’Hara, Erskine Caldwell, Grace Metalious. My favorite book was John Farris’ Harrison High, which was later made into a movie called Because They’re Young.
Then came college and the dreaded summer reading list. I’ll save that discussion for another time.