The following is based on a lecture delivered at the Kerlan Collection of Children?s Literature at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 1995. I had been asked to speak about juveniles and children's literature, a subject about which I know little. Pressed for an appropriate topic, I spoke instead on the books I experienced as a child and adolescent, my personal children's literature.
As a child I did not think of books in the same way as I think of them today. Books then were no more or less important to me than, say, the bathtub. I can recall neither my first encounter with a book, nor a significant moment in which a book played a part. I was enamoured of no specific character or story. The books were just there, in quantity, and they became part of my consciousness, if not my every-day life. What more could I have made of them at such an early age? I recognized the basic physical features. I saw that they lined the walls. I took them for granted.
I have only sparse recollections of my parents? reading to me, and those stand out, not for the words or the illustrations, but for the setting: an ample, well-cushioned window-seat, second floor, high under the canopy of a gigantic copper beach, pleasant enough for reading, and sublime for daydreaming. I have an early, isolated memory of my mother showing me crossword puzzles up there, the salty breeze blowing in from Narragansett Bay. She was working a spiral-bound book of puzzles, edited, no doubt, by Margaret Farrar of the Times. Puzzle books and quiz books were ubiquitous in my family, and we were always challenging one another with trivia and riddles.
At the beginning of one of my early years in school I remember a questionnaire that I brought home from school?maybe third or fourth grade?one question of which was this: How many books are in your home? a) none; b) 1-10; c) 10-25; d) over 25. This question boggled me. I grew up in a house with a thousand books at least, and there were almost that many again next door, at grandmother?s. What wasn?t on the shelves was stacked in store-rooms, or later, as the quantities grew, in boxes in the basement. Didn?t everybody have a thousand books?
The cellars of grandmothers the world over contain much that is both mysterious and instructive to grandchildren, and my grandmother?s cellar was no different. She lived alone next door for as long as I knew her, which was twenty-five years, in a large Victorian house with thirty-odd rooms on five and a half levels. The two special places for me in this majestic building, places I planted my flag and claimed as my own, were the one-room aerie at the top of a tower on the fourth and a half floor; and a dark, cavernous, magical basement. Time and time again, I was sucked down its cool granite halls, drawn by the dark and the dank, drawn by shadow toward the coal shoot and bin, the blackest and most foreboding corner still heaped with a crusty mound of coal. Far back in a distant recess, behind a squat stand of steamer trunks, along a dirty outside wall, were three large book cases filled with books, each case about three feet long, and each with perhaps five or six shelves. More books were stacked between them on the floor, and more still were mixed in with old blankets in the trunks.
What made these books special to me, and what made them my books in the end, was their state of decay. All were water-damaged. On some, mold had set in, and on others, vermin had nipped the corners. Lots of dead bugs were scattered about them, and sheets of dust and mortar had settled over their top edges. With bookseller eyes I see them now as never important books, rather secondary and tertiary literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mixed in with some local history. It was strange to me that even though they were damaged and consigned to perdition in this basement, no one could bring themselves to throw them out, as if someone were saving them just for me. I came to covet, in those youthful hours, those moldy books, many of whose pages could not be turned without them tearing off in my hands.
What a find for me! Those books in grandmother?s cellar fascinated me in a way those that were read to me, or those I was told read, did not. I never once "read" a book that came from grandmother?s basement. But I paged through a lot of them, and it was here, in this dim alcove that I perhaps first grasped not what a book was?for I had gotten that much from reading Dr. Seuss?but rather, what a book could be: a mystery to be fathomed, very much like the basement itself, foreboding and comforting at the same time. It was on these shelves that I first encountered the names of Longfellow and Holmes, Higginson and Stowe. I distinctly remember The Memoirs of U.S. Grant, and there was a long run of Harper?s Magazine, to which I returned years later in my early career as a bookseller, to extract volume V, containing the October, 1851 issue in which was printed a contribution by Herman Melville used by Harper?s as a promo for Moby Dick. I?d like to think of this as the first book I scouted.
What now seems remarkable about my fascination for these books in grandmother?s basement is that in my own home next door there were two tons of books at least, not damaged, readily accessible, and with good light to read by. I can only guess why I ignored these books early on. Perhaps they were too much an extension of my parents? personal world for me to grasp, while the books in the bowels of grandmother?s cellar were too easily accessible to a curious and adventurous little kid, rummaging to his heat?s content, not to take for all they were worth.
When I was ten or eleven my father had new bookcases built in the library. There were two banks of shelves, with glass doors above and cabinets beneath, and the shelves were lit by soft gray florescent lights up and down the sides, so that at night, with all the other lights out, the books radiated and glowed like something primordial. In my parents? bedroom were my mother?s novels, mostly current or recent fiction, including, as I remember, a lot of Graham Greene, Hemingway and Aldous Huxley, and a thick paperback whose spine I can see still, the chilling silhouettes of two distinctly-clad figures, Stendahl?s The Red and the Black. Simple words, that title, so I remembered it. There was also Agatha Christie and Alastair McLean?authors I ploughed through in my late teens?and my father?s Perry Masons, which I never touched.
There was another title I remember from those shelves in my parents? room, the one incongruity among the modern novels and thrillers: Sir Martin Conway?s The First Crossing of Spitzbergen, which contained, I discovered, my other grandmother?s bookplate. I remember having it down off the shelf once when the cloth spine suddenly separated from the rest of the binding. I quickly put it back on the shelf, and tried to position the spine in a way so as to conceal the damage, but to no avail. I decided to hide the evidence and took the book with me to my room, and I shoved it behind others on my own shelves. This book is still on my shelf at home today. The spine is still off and you can easily spot the book from across the room for the elastic bands that hold it on.
In the hall, just outside my own bedroom were more modern novels and historical works: John Masefield was here, as was George Moore, John Galsworthy, and Henry Adams, and the collected works of the nineteenth-century historian John Fiske. I walked past these books?hundreds of them?day in, day out. Occasionally I looked at them, on rainy days, or to escape the babysitters. Once I counted them for no particular reason, except perhaps in response to that school questionnaire.
In my own bedroom there were bookcases on the east and north walls, and these were lined with books on sports (mostly baseball, but football was making inroads) and Ripley?s Believe It or Nots that I snitched from my parents? shelves?an early sign of the bibliomania. There were also the Mad Magazine paperbacks that I still have in a carton in the furthest recesses of my bathroom closet, some 30 or 40 of them. I was a subscriber to Mad, and the magazine and the books they published played a big part in my negotiating adolescence. I doubt I?ll ever sell them.
My grandmother would not have approved of Mad, had she only known. To have her own sway, she subscribed me to every Time-Life series going, and there were plenty in the early sixties: Nature Series, Science Series, Travel Series. These were on my shelves in abundance, neatly shelved in chronological order. The best of the lot was the Historical Series, which only lasted six issues or so, or at least that?s all I ever received, and I?m sure it was the publishers, and not my grandmother, who stopped the subscription. The Historical Series had all kinds of great pictures of the American West, bear hunts, and steamboats, gunslingers and illustrations of old political broadsides printed in bold wooden types. I was fascinated by these. Equally fascinating for me was American Heritage magazine, with lavish color reproductions of Currier & Ives lithographs of trains steaming across the continent, or firefighters battling raging blazes in the heart of Harlem. I still own the set I grew up with, and when I went back to sort through them about seven or eight years ago, I remember how soiled and worn the early volumes were?evidence of so many late nights paging through them. American Heritage is a scorned set now, for it is a long and cumbersome set in its complete state, common and unsaleable; but in my opinion, no household with children should be without them. I was also subscribed to Horizon magazine, which was oriented towards the fine arts, but these didn?t appeal to an adolescent boy so much as the whaling scenes of stove longboats and spoutings of the agonized, bloody whale.
My mother must have worried about the blood and gore because books started turning up in my room that I wouldn?t have wanted ordinarily, like Jean Kerr?s Please Don?t Eat the Daisies; and Watson and Crick?s The Double Helix. On the other hand, Hemingway?s Death in the Afternoon, with its illustrations of the bullfight, mysteriously disappeared.
In time, all these books satisfied and enriched; gradually, I began to notice the books at home, especially those behind the glass doors in the room we called the library, our living room. Here was my father?s collection of New England authors, and selected highspots in any number of fields, many of which had passed on to him from his mother (the other grandmother), a woman I never knew, though herself a noted collector of books and antiques in Baltimore in the thirties and forties. Many others had been collected by my father in his early days, as a student at Brown University.
Occasionally my father would take down a volume and show it to me, gingerly opening the book to the title-page and illustrations, as if the pages themselves were made of gold. I remember the thick, stout copy of the American edition of Moby Dick; I remember the brilliant color plates in Audubon?s eight-volume Birds of America; Thackeray?s Vanity Fair in its original bright yellow monthly parts; I remember the fore-edge painting of a fishing scene; I remember the bright green and gilt pictorial cloth binding on the first edition of Huck Finn. Oddly, I don?t have any early memories of the best part of the collection, that which pertained to Henry David Thoreau, the author with whom, in the end, I most closely identified my father. Perhaps he thought of these as his most private books, and that by showing them to me, some connection he had with them would be broken. His collection of Thoreau, I learned later, was very good, with fine first editions in slipcases of Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, the latter with pencil corrections in the text by Thoreau, and there was a long run of various editions of Walden, including many foreign ones, as well as family and association copies. He also owned, incredibly enough, two pages of the Walden manuscript. Such touchstones of literary history within inches of my grubby, inexperienced hands! But what could I, a boy of twelve or thirteen, know of these?
What I did know was that opening the glass doors to my father?s books was a nuisance; it meant moving chairs and lamps, which I?m now certain were strategically placed. So I was drawn for practical reasons to the other end of the library where there were three or four floor-to-ceiling sections of family books, for want of a better term?books that somehow belonged to everybody and anybody. On the east wall were nautical and yachting books (our other family passion was boats), including two or three my father had written and published himself. On the south wall was a section of travel books, Michelin and Baedeker guides, books my parents had purchased or had been given as presents before, during, or after their wanderings, and another section on the art and antiquities of the countries they visited. On the west wall was a small section of architecture?coffee table books with stunning black and white photographs of colonial and Georgian houses, and others with color photographs of castles and villas, plus a shelf or two of books about furniture, some of which pictured?my mother made sure I knew?pieces that were in the next room.
The two books my father wrote, about cruising in the Mediterranean, attracted me to the nautical shelves because I was pictured there in his books, many times a Kodak memory, a skinny, towhead kid of nine. His books drew me to others in the same section, and by the time I went off to college I doubt there was a book on those shelves I hadn?t paged through, not a picture I had missed. One of my favorites was Heavy Weather Sailing by Adlard Coles, a Brit from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I didn?t know it then, of course, but it was a book that became and remains the standard textbook for surviving storms at sea in sail boats. Again and again I went back to its series of plates showing storms whipping the enraged ocean, and the damaged rigs and hulls of yachts that had been pitch-poled or turtled. The last and, for me, most fascinating plate of all showed a rare photograph of a rogue wave eighty or ninety feet high, rising out of a turbulent, chaotic sea. I remember also the books of yachting photographs by Stanley and Morris Rosenfeld, the premier yachting photographers from the forties to the sixties, and the accounts of the great single-handers, among them Joshua Slocum, the first to sail around the world alone, and the great solo racer, Sir Francis Chichester, whose accounts of solo trans-Atlantic voyages thrilled me. Many of these pictures and texts are clear in my mind today, and I believe they had a profound effect on whatever abilities I have as a sailor, and they have certainly given me a deeper understanding for the power and magnitude of even tranquil seas.
Another book I remember well: Ralph Ceram?s The March of Archaeology, published in the late fifties, was a popular account of the history of archaeology. Many a winter?s afternoon found me captive to the pictures and accounts of the great archaeological discoveries in Egypt and Asia Minor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when layers of Troy were successively unearthed and the tomb of Tutankhamen discovered. One picture in particular haunted me, that of the mummified body of Ramses II?and I swear there was a time I was checking the book once a week to assure myself that the mummy was still in print and not in my room. (As it turned out, a mummy did find its way to my house, if not my room: a mummy case with scattered body parts left among the linen wrappings which I recently offered on behalf of a local consignor. If you think there is no connection between this mummy case and those parts of The March of Archaeology I absorbed when I was young, you are wrong. When I first heard of a mummy case needing to be sold, don?t think I didn?t flash back to the excitement I felt in our family library thirty-odd years ago.)
In September 1966 I transferred into the seventh grade of a private school. The summer before, I encountered my first reading list, a typed list of more than thirty (yes, thirty!) titles presented to me by my mother, titles I was told were required reading by the school. It was daunting, to say the least, but my parents had virtually all of the books, and we would be on the boats a lot that summer, so I set in to reading them in a major-league sort of way, and got through most?eighty or ninety percent of them. One of the ones I didn?t read was The Prince and the Pauper. When I arrived for my first day of school in September I was given my first assignment: book reports on the three books assigned for summer reading, among them, yes, The Prince and the Pauper. Classmates had it all too easy, reading Mark Twain and Jack London, and I forget the third?maybe Salinger. I, on the other hand, a young teenager in a new school with no friends, was already looked upon as a freak for having read books like David Goes Voyaging in the Galapagos, and The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, and twenty-eight or so others of the same ilk?a list my mother had snookered me with.
If there is a moral here it is this: kids don?t just need kids? books. I had my share of Winnie the Pooh, the Cat-in-the-Hat series, and my favorite, One Morning in Maine, which was about a hurricane. But kids need grown-up books, too, for they will be grown-ups themselves someday, and navigating the course to adulthood is no easy chore. Books can still be had for a buck or two apiece. Two hundred and fifty dollars spent on even marginal books can have lasting, positive effects of the mind of a child.
Bigger changes are always in store, and successive generations will be there to surf them. How well they surf, how adroitly they navigate their future will depend on what they know and how they know it. Children can learn much through the power of observation, and books at any age level offer much to be observed, whether by reading the texts or just eyeballing the illustrations; to speak nothing of the tactile pleasure of holding even a badly-made book. Books as a whole still offer the best gateway to the past, as well as the future, and are themselves separate life forms happily coexisting with our own.
Although I don?t recollect my father ever reading to me much, if at all, (unless it was hollering grammatically-lame instructions down a hatch at me trying to install some gizmo in the bilge) but he could sure tell a story. On weekends, in the steely half-light of winter mornings, he would guide my sister and me through the magical world of Robbie the Rabbit, a happy-go-lucky, unharried hare who weekly assembled motley and sundry crews and mounted untold expeditions to capture the moon and bring it down to earth. The moon was inevitably harnessed, and the crew inevitably pulled and pulled, but to no avail, even with the help of celestial winches and cranes. No matter how weird, or far-fetched either the characters or the plot may have been, the moon would not budge. Not ever. Years later I saved up $700 and bought a telescope, thinking I wanted to be an astronomer. Every kid has dreams, and every piece of literature?oral or otherwise?an adult to call it its own.
Copyright Rob Rulon-Miller