My mother didn’t read to me; she was too busy, during World War II and afterwards, just raising five children and trying to make ends meet. I doubt it would have ever occurred to her to read to her children—and we never thought to ask. “Education” (which included learning how to read) was left up to the schools.
I can’t recall the actual process of learning how to read; it seems to me that I always knew how. I remember, however, discovering the rows of books inside my mother’s glass-door bookcase. There, I found “Eight Cousins” and “Little Men” and “Rose in Bloom” – all books by Louisa May Alcott. “Little Women” was the first book my mother gave to me, one Christmas, and I read it over and over until I could recite, by heart, much of the dialogue. I mispronounced Phoebe’s name in “Eight Cousins” for years. I made the books my own. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered those books had belonged to my cousin, June, who had outgrown the books and given them to us. (Although the concept of ‘outgrowing’ any book is foreign to me. But I didn’t object to having books given to us.
I’d put peanut butter on saltine crackers and take them to the cherry tree in our back yard, to readwhile sitting in the branches. Or, I’d go down to the basement and sit on the landing (which was warm in the wintertime from the heat of the furnace) and read my book. I’d lay on my bed and read. I’d sit on the front porch and read. I read everything I could lay my hands on; the directions on the back of the can of Hershey’s cocoa, my Uncle’s National Geograhics, the newspaper, the Reader’s Digest—sometimes in sheer desperation I’d try to read one of my grandmother’s German books, understanding none of it but deciphering words here and there. My grandmother didn’t’ keep very many good magazines in her bathroom!
When I was about ten or eleven, I accompanied an uncle to the Carl Street drugstore where—as he picked up a prescription for my mother—I discovered a paperback book titled “The Diary of Anne Frank”. Uncle Cal bought the book for me and it was my first real experience of reading non-fiction…and more importantly, learning how the War the Europe affected just one family. (*To this day, I collect and read—and re-read—everything I can find about Anne Frank.
I read virtually everything in the little school library at St Leo’s and many of the books offered by the bookmobile in the summertime, or I’d walk long distances to visit a different public library. When a new main branch public library opened up in downtown Cincinnati, it became one of my favorite places to visit.
I never tired of my favorite books and would read them over and over again. I have the fondest memories of a series of Enid Blyton books, about two girls and two boys (sister-brother, sister-brother) who had the most fantastic adventures—in a castle, behind a waterfall, in caves, on an island. Years later, a penpal in England found that series of books for me and I, as an adult, would read them again and again, re-capturing the same faint, blissful, memory of an Enid Blyton Adventure book and a Reese’s peanut butter candy cup, two of my greatest childhood pleasures. Most delightful of all was the discovery, so many years later, that there were two more books to the series than I knew about. (*In more recent years I learned much more about Enid Blyton and what a prolific children’s author she was.)
When I became a little older, I discovered Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Ginny Gordon. One Christmas, my brother Jim gave me FIVE Nancy Drew books – five books all at once intoxicated me. I spent all day Christmas reading a book.
I found a little thrift store about a mile from home, where one could buy books for twenty-five cents and I became obsessed with trying to find another quarter for another book. I’d rather go without lunch and walk home, using my bus fare to buy a book. So, that’s sort of how it all began.
In high school I worked for a year in the school library and read dozens of specially-chosen books suitable for a girl’s school…and discovered Mark Twain. One of my favorite English assignments was receiving a list of books we had to read in the course of the year, and write book reports on. (It ranked right up there with being turned loose in a candy store and being able to have whatever you wanted). I loved those assignments!
Downtown, by the time I was twelve, I discovered used book stores and dusty out of the way thrift shops that generally had a box of books in the doorway, to entice you to come inside. These books were also right around twenty five cents each. I walked up and down miles of downtown Cincinnati streets, finding every little store that had books to sell at prices I could afford. (*Many years later, I walked those streets again with a younger brother who is as addicted to book,s as I and we would find—I, giddy with nostalgia—some of the same shops, the same use book stores and antique shops, still there, offering treasure for next-to-nothing prices.
After graduating from high school I began working downtown, at Western Southern Life Insurance—and now could buy more books. My taste in books gradually became a little more refined; I’d read biographies and autobiographies, series of books by my favorite authors. Two of the earliest collections were historical fiction by Norah Lofts and American pioneer fiction by Janice Holt Giles.
Now, our house overflows with books. Visitors seem a little awed by the shelves of books that seem to be everywhere (a common question is: “Do you actually read all of these books?”)
After marrying and having sons to raise, I found myself not alone in my addiction; I only needed to ask “who wants to go book hunting?” and a chorus of voices respond excitedly. We’d climb into the car and drive all over the San Fernando Valley, to all the exciting places that people seem aware of, or perhaps indifferent to – Goodwill and Salvation stores that always have books for sale, or the thrift stores where books are often the least expensive items in the store.
One day I took the boys to a bookstore that sold only new books. They were excited over the prospect of a new book – and had their own spending money.
“Don’t touch anything” a clerk told my then-seven year old son as we entered. Moments later, he cautioned “Make sure you put those books back where you found them”
Dispiritedly, we decided to leave. A damper had been put on the pleasure of finding a new book. What would have happened, I wondered, if someone had told me, years ago – Don’t touch!
“Never mind,” I told the children. “There are plenty of other bookstores”. Thank God for that! **
Now, many years later, when you visit a bookstore such as Barnes & Noble, there is an entire section of books for children, and they are invited to go inside and browse to their heart’s content. This is as it should be. I think if you expose children to books at a very young age, if they become READERs, everything else they learn will come to them a little easier. Now, we are raising grandchildren to be READERS too.
–Sandra Lee Smith