A Book Is Like a Garden Carried in the Pocket
– Chinese Proverb
I’ve always kind of pitied people who don’t like to read. To this day, I still feel a stir of excitement and headiness when I walk into a bookstore or library. And this goes back to those childhood trips to the Belmont Branch Library with my mother. It is summer. Richmond, Virginia. Hot. And there is a humidity which makes my clothes moist and wrinkly. “You can come inside or just sit in the car,” my mother would murmur, carrying the stack of novels she’d already read that week. I’m sure as my legs stuck to the leather seats of her Oldsmobile, my throat sore and parched, as I heard the rumble of the window unit hanging out of the library window, I must have thought anything beats this asphalt car hell so I trotted inside. Before long, I was heading home with my own stack of books, each title proudly written down in a log to show off to my new teacher come fall.
Over time, I enjoyed the likes of Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, eventually moving on to Victoria Holt and Agatha Christie. My mother was crushed I wasn’t interested in her Little Colonel books though her hopes raised when I read almost every Nancy Drew ever written. In my bedroom there was a white wooden bookcase and her collection of Nancy Drew from the World War II era (royal blue binding with scarlet print) commanded the top shelf. I still have the books: the paper now brown and hard to read. The Secret of the Old Clock. The Mystery at Lilac Inn. Oh, how I wanted to not only be Nancy Drew, but meet a nice male friend like Ned Nickerson.
Sad to say, my fifteen-year-old and I don’t go to the library together. She will read a People or Seventeen for pleasure, but by the time she’s finished her school assignments, the likes of Emerson and Hawthorne, the last thing she wants to do is meander around a public library with her mother. When she was younger, however, we both agreed that Nancy Drew was the bomb.
Happily, I go on my own and I still enjoy a trip to the library more than shopping. And I prefer the old style libraries. My neighborhood library recently had a $4.8 million renovation, courtesy of the taxpayers’ milk. Many of the books are gone. Instead, we have teen areas, quiet areas, kidney-shaped desks, computers; the atmosphere is that of an airline terminal. The building has gone green and they took away the bulletin board. I now go to the branch in the next neighborhood which has more shelves of books. Half the pleasure of going to a library is anticipating what you’re going to bring home. Often I have no idea and I usually make a choice that surprises even me. I also like to reread old faves when I stumble upon them.
When I think of a great reader, I think of my 86-year-old mother-in-law, Betty. She lives in a retirement home, although she’s not interested in pottery or volunteering in the gift shop. Bridge? No, thank you. She stays in her room and reads almost a book a day (“And I don’t skip,” she attests.”). She loves the fact she no longer has to cook, clean, ferry children, babysit grandchildren, do good works, or go to church; she just reads. In her room there are stacks of books everywhere – philosophy, novels, murder mysteries. And in the middle is her late husband’s giant blue recliner. She told me she learned how to read before she went to school, with a little help from her parents, and practiced reading the funnies and Time Magazine to the cook Maria.
My mother-in-law has the ability to zone in and concentrate. She raised five children and studied for two master’s degrees while driving carpool. All of her children are readers. By the time my husband was six, he was spending part of his weekly allowance on Hardy Boys books, later collecting pulp fiction. We have dozens of the Edward Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series downstairs, still lovingly read, usually in front of a fire.
As more snow and sleet come down this Friday afternoon, scant sign of spring on the horizon, I grab my thick coat and head off to the library. We were snowed in for two days last week and I plowed through 877 pages of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley novels. So lurid, but I couldn’t put them down. So much better than shopping online or eating the rest of the Girl Scout cookies.