Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Books of Childhood

With all the commotion – not to mention media attention – given to the arrival of the last of the Harry Potter novels last month, I was trying to remember what books I read when I was a child, if there was anything that got me as excited about a new book as children today were getting excited about “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.”

While various adults could be heard reminiscing about their favorite childhood books, I could remember the first music I heard as a child (what turned out to be Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherezade” when I was 3), the first recording of my very own (Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherezade” maybe when I was 6 or 7), and, pattern aside, even the first book about music that I read (a second-hand copy my father found for me of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “My Musical Life” when I was probably 8 or 9), but not my first book.

I learned to read from the jackets of my mother’s classical records, little 45s we had then, knowing which ones I wanted to listen to by picking out words like ‘piano’ in the title. Of course, we had a piano, my father played it a lot and the fact most of the covers would’ve had a picture of a piano certainly made it easier, but the association with the word was very clear very early in my life.

But the books themselves remain less memorable.

When we would visit my mother’s parents’ house, there was a beautiful bookcase in the living room and when I was about 5, I was allowed to page through some of the books while stretched out on the floor in front of its curved glass doors. One I remember was an old atlas and the maps fascinated me: they would point out where England was, where my grandmother grew up, and where we were located. I assumed they must be miles apart, somehow thinking the Atlantic Ocean was comparable to the Susquehanna River: a mile wide at Harrisburg, it seemed immense when we’d drive over it.

I was also fascinated by the Shakespeare plays my grandfather had collected when he was a young man, each one in a separately bound volume. Actually, the only book they were concerned about letting me look at was Bullfinch’s Mythology with all of its engravings of nude gods, so of course, whenever I was left alone in the room, I would sneak it off the shelf and glimpse a couple pages furtively before sliding it back into place: I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Published (if not printed) in 1898, it contained 200 illustrations with the occasional vaguely sketched-in breast and a plethora of strategically placed fig-leaves, even where none existed (I know now, having seen some of the more or less anatomically correct originals at least in photographs), leading me to develop a rather difficult-to-explain case of fig-leaf envy. Of course, you have to remember my grandmother was born during the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria which was, amused or not, a different era entirely.

Now, living in my parents’ house, those books have become mine: last week, I sat on my living floor in front of my bookcase looking at some of these same books again, more fascinated by the fact many of them, like the Shakespeare, pre-date my grandparents’ wedding in 1911, a good many from my grandfather’s student days (Steelton High School, Class of 1905).

But these were not the first books I read.

Of course there were comic books. One of the famous family anecdotes concerned the time my father, in a hospital in Philadelphia, was allowed to go out to see a baseball game with his beloved Phillies. I remember how excited he was to see Richie Ashburn playing live. I remember how bored I was at the prospect of having to sit there watching what I already hated watching on television. So they allowed me to take a handful of comic books – they had to take me along since there was no one there to babysit me – so of course I read them all from cover to cover during the course of the game, even as my father was going nuts watching his team lose right in front of him. Aside from the usual Walt Disney characters and some nature studies (animals of Africa, say), this pile also included “Illustrated Classics” like Moby Dick and Treasure Island (these have yet to re-surface).

From my school’s library, there were books from a series about children, different sets of twins growing up in different countries or cultures: Ireland and Greece, I remember, not to mention the one from the Deep South with a title and illustrations (complete with watermelon) that today would call for its immediate banning.

I read my father’s childhood copies of classics like “Treasure Island” (an adaptation of the original) and “Black Beauty,” both of which I recall enjoying before I was 8, maybe earlier. There were also things like “Men of Iron” which was about the life of medieval knights told from the viewpoint of the boys who were their squires set in Glastonbury.

But then, there’s a photograph of me reading Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Mexico & Peru” when I was 10, a door-stop of a Modern Library edition which, at some 1200 pages, was the first “fat book” I read. I even remember buying it: my dad had taken me to Pomeroy’s, a downtown department store that had a small book department next to the bins of LPs we were frequently checking out. He wanted to know why I was interested in that one. I have no idea why, even now: it was just something that struck me as I looked through the selections they had.

We also had a copy of Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” (something called, oddly, the “Inner Sanctum Edition” which I half expected to start creaking whenever I opened the cover). I began reading it the summer I was 11 – what a precocious twit I was – then doing a book report on it that fall in 6th grade. For me, this book created a land of imagination through the rarified air of the Russian Imperial court similar to what other books were probably creating for my friends.

And yet I also read some of the Hardy Boys, even some Nancy Drew mysteries my mom had when she was a child (always a fan of mysteries, she continued reading the latest ones by her favorite authors up to the week she died, leaving behind over 1,000 books for us to find a home for). There were also a few science fiction thrillers like H.G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau” which then led me to “War of the Worlds” (and I still like the book over the movie).

In 6th grade, my seat in class was usually near the World Book encyclopedias – not as good as the Brittanica my parents had bought for my older brother when he was in school, but teachers thought it was better for schoolrooms because it had so many color illustrations. Whenever we were discussing something in class and the teacher was asking questions no one could answer, I would reach over, grab a volume, look it up and then shoot my hand up in the air. And thus the character of the know-it-all Dr. Dick was born...

As for series of books, by the time I was in what we then called “junior high school” I was reading all four volumes of Thomas B. Costain’s “The Plantagenet Story,” a history of the English Kings from Edward I to Richard III (I also pronounced it with the accent on the second syllable, plan-TAAH-j’nit, rather than on what people (and one dictionary) told me was the correct third syllable, plant-uh-JEN-it, which I thought just sounded stupid: in fact, I just looked it up and four on-line sources all place it on the 2nd syllable!). Regardless, when a classmate did a report in geography class mentioning two famous Spanish kings, reading the Roman numerals as letters – Charles Vee and Philip Eye-Eye – it annoyed me that no one corrected her, especially my 7th grade teacher!

There was a biography of the Russian empress Catherine the Great with the classic line in my book report: mentioning how she dominated her cabinet ministers but not wanting to use the masculine form “master” since she was, after all, a woman, I said “she was the mistress of them all,” then wondered why my English teacher was cracking up. I have no recollection how they sanitized the bit about the horse...

So when people are reminiscing about the books they read at 13, rhapsodizing nostalgically about the fantasy world created for them by “The Secret Garden” or “The Chronicles of Narnia,” I remember wading through Dostoievsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” trying to make sense out of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter.

Considering I didn’t read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy until I was in my mid-20s (and then the first thing I read was “Bored of the Rings”), it’s not surprising I still haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I had thought about it after hearing Daniel Pinkwater on All Things Considered talk about reading the first one in Spanish because the reading level was equivalent to the level he'd reached in the adult Spanish classes he was then taking. I considered getting a copy of the first volume in German (perhaps comparable to what I’d had between high school and college-level classes) but that would be just too geeky (even for me)...

Dr. Dick

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