I was reading this article In Our Parents’ Bookshelves (one in a long line of articles lamenting the fact that physical books may become a thing of the past) the other day when it got me to thinking about my parent’s bookshelves and how much time I spent going through them as a kid.
I think every house should have a bookshelf like this to explore. There’s a whole world–or no, more than that, there are worlds upon worlds–in a shelf of books. And if they’re your parents shelves, or a loved-one’s shelves, well then there’s something else to consider isn’t there?
Some people say what we read is who we are, and to some extent I think that’s true. A collection of books can be and mean a lot of things but for me, and I suspect a lot of other people as well, a collection of books is almost like a personal history–a physical representation of who you once were, who you hoped to be, of your thoughts and dreams and studies, a map of your formal glorious (or not so glorious as the case may be) selves.
And, okay, I’m getting a little carried away but a bookshelf can tell you a lot about a person.
(What do you bookshelves say about you? Ha, there’s a cool feature in the New Yorker online–The Subconscious Shelf–you can check out for some clues.)
So, the house I grew up in had a large bookshelf that came to be and mean a lot of things for me. The downstairs of my family’s home was shaped like an L. However, this arrangement didn’t work for us so we turned this large L-shaped room into two smaller rooms by putting in a wall. Ah, but not just any wall…
Because the entire wall was a mass of built-in bookshelves. These shelves held many many things–not just books but records, mixed tapes, and photo albums–that came to represent this odd picture I had formed of my parents and the lives they must have lived before they had me.
I wasn’t the biggest reader as a kid, and I wasn’t obsessed with books the way I am now, but going through all those books was a way to pass the time. There was a lot about them that simply seemed unknown–like they held secrets of some sort. And not even the great big secrets of the world and how it works (the secrets I would later attribute to books and their weird book-magic) but the secrets of who my parents were and secrets of, I dunno, a sort of grownup knowledge that wasn’t yet my own.
So of course there are a few books that really stand out…
#1: Mom’s Human Sexuality college textbook
Ha, I bet you didn’t see that one coming. (Well, you should have with that whole secret knowledge bit.)
I cannot tell you how many times I took this book off the shelf. I simply couldn’t resist. It seemed so exotic and I felt so bad and rebellious while reading it. Is it too easy to call it the forbidden fruit? Because that’s exactly what it was even though it was right there on the shelf where anyone could grab it.
But yes, like all kids (and people in gardens) I was curious. I remember going through this book with friends at sleepovers –how we giggled at all the pictures which were these pencil sketches of men who for whatever reason had excessive amounts of facial hair. Later when boys came over it was an awesome flirtation device. There were so many naughty words and so much to discover. Ha, there was also a lot in there about other cultures and their conceptions of beauty and sexuality which, sadly, none of us really cared about at the time because we were too busy laughing over the word falice.
I do have one very distinct memory of looking at a particular picture with a friend of mine and having this moment where we both realized the fundamentals of how two people can fit together and I’m pretty sure we screamed. Or we at least squealed. I think I might have said something like, “Oh my God!” And then the inevitable coming-of-age conversation followed…
“You mean he sticks it there!”
“That is so gross!”
“Why would someone do that?”
(We hadn’t gotten to that part yet.)
#2: Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts
This books stands out, not because I read it and it made me think about spirituality, but because there was a picture of a woman on the cover that scared the shit out of me. Seth was a personality that talked through this Jane woman and it completely freaked me out–not the idea so much as the idea coupled with the horrible image on the cover.
I still hate this cover. I can’t even look at it. Part of me is tempted to go look it up so I can post a picture of it here so you can know, really know the horror that is this woman’s face, but it really does give me the creeps and I don’t want that picture anywhere near my blog.
I dunno, there is simply something really chilling about it to me. Maybe it just represents some weird devilish unknown but I hate to think of myself as scared of the unknown. (Or devils for that matter–they aren’t really that bad.) The woman’s eyes look so hollow though. And her mouth is open just so–like she’s moaning, or in pain, or is drooling on herself, or is doing all of the above. And it looks like something not quite right is going on. Like if she opened her mouth just a little bit wider she might suck me into her pain…
Or, you know, just drool on me and talk about her bad haircut.
#3: Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
I read Still Life with Woodpecker but I’m sure I didn’t “get” a lot of it since I think I was in 5th- or maybe 6th-grade at the time. It’s weird how you can experience books–how you can read something and get something out of it completely different from what the author intended. Or even if the author didn’t have an intention, I find it interesting how you can read the same book two different times and have such different experiences of it.
As a kid I thought it was nice how the princess had a pet frog and I didn’t get why the narrator was so obsessed with this Remington thing (which confused me at first because even though I knew what a typewriter was I was not familiar with the brand-names). But I liked it. The man was funny and enthusiastic. Also, there was a love story and when you’re a young girl that’s all you really need to make a story interesting. There was a lot of talk about the moon too, which was kind of a thing for me at the time.
Is it really lame if I admit I was obsessed with the moon? Probably but oh well–I’ll admit it, I had a “thing” for the moon when I was younger. I mean, everyone has a thing for the moon–the moon is the moon after all–but I formed a sort of weird sleeping pattern around it.
I slept in this upstairs bedroom (this was before the wannabe ‘notes from underground’ stage I went through as a teenager) with the windows open every night because the moon would shine right on my bed and I looooved that. I just HAD to sleep in the little moonshadow (thank you for that word Cat Stevens), and if that moonshadow happened to be cast at the foot of the bed, well then I would curl up and sleep at the foot of my queen-sized bed happy as can be. Unless the dog was already there in which case some kind of compromise would be made.
I never told my parents about this. It was a weird and slightly embarrassing bedtime ritual, something I did knowing it wasn’t something “big” kids did. (Similar to the stage I went through where I had to say goodnight to every single one of my stuffed animals.) I don’t think my parents ever knew, but I wonder if they noticed. Parents always know more about you than you think they do. (Well, my parents anyway.)
But yes, since I’m admitting my deep dark moon secret tonight, I might as well tell you that to this day I would sleep with the windows open if I could. (Right now my windows open onto the street and there are too many people passing by late at night that could watch me and, you know, harass me or creep me out.) I don’t need it to be dark to sleep. Also, I can fall sleep in almost any position. And yes… if I happen to come across a bit of light that’s the moon shinning through the window I kind of have to fight the urge to go curl up in it.
So imagine being this weird moon-obsessed kid and then you come across a book with a lot of moontalk (new word!) in it–of course I was into it. Even if I didn’t understand the majority of what was said.
Robbins never made me question the purpose of the moon (though, I suppose he tried) but I do remember thinking the book was pretty, and I still enjoy this passage that I reread later in life…
Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not. Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end. Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. There is only one serious question. And that is: Who knows how to make love stay? Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself. Answer me that and I will ease your mind about the beginning and the end of time. Answer me that and I will reveal to you the purpose of the moon.
How could you not want to curl up and drift off to sleep in a passage like that?
#4ish: The poetry books of Rod McKuen
Just look at that bright crazy cover and you can see why a young girl could be so drawn to it.
Neon Colors = Awesome.
Looking back, a lot of these poems weren’t the greatest thing in the world but they were short and they were in pretty books so I read them anyway. I’m sure I loved them at the time and my particular favorite was (and yes, I’ll admit it, still is) The Time of Noon…
When you’re alone at night
and the old memories you call back
to help you do the things
that will put you to sleep
don’t work anymore
and even the aphrodisiac of magazines doesn’t help
and there is no place to go, no one to call,
try thinking about the sun.
The way it catches in the trees sometimes.
The way it follows you while riding in a car.
The way it plays in the hair of strangers on the beach.
The way it climbs the hills with you and pushes you from bed in morning.
Think about the time of noon when everybody’s just a little crazy.
Remember that the cliffs are white and steep
and you’ll grow tired climbing them
tired enough to sleep.
What you’re thinking about
isn’t really the cause of perspiration on your forehead
it’s only the sun.
It’s just the time of noon.
I read this and thought of, not the time of noon, but the time of dusk when everyone in my neighborhood used to go a little crazy. Do you know the time I’m talking about? I lived quite the suburban existence with lots of kids running and playing outside and sometimes in the summer we would all be outside and there would be this time when we knew our parents were going to call us in for dinner soon so we’d all ride our bikes with a tad more enthusiasm, try to make that last goal if we were playing soccer, make one more shot if we were playing knock out (a basketball game), or even just make that last good joke if we were sitting in the grass doing nothing. Because we knew, with our heightened little kid senses we just knew, that soon whatever game we were playing would be over and we’d have to go inside for the night.
I don’t have much trouble sleeping these days (as was mentioned before) but if I did and I thought about the time of dusk I bet it would help.
Okay, more books…
Lets see, there were my dad’s business books which I flipped through. There were some fixit books I used to explore. I remember the collection of National Geographics I used to take out every once in a while, mostly to look at the pictures. Oh, there was some other random titles. I remember thinking it odd that we had two copies of The Prophet. We always had the latest paperbacks from Micheal Crighton and John Grisham floating around. I remember picking up The Celestine Prophesy from those shelves. Ah, and Myra Breckinridge–another book I read not knowing or really caring what I was reading. Ha, that one’s pretty bad now that I think about it. My parents had some sexy books.
Moving on… The Hobbit, a collection of brown books my mom got from the printing press she worked for that I don’t think we ever took out of their plastic wrap, The Little House on the Prairie series (which I didn’t like because I thought they were boring), a Louisa May Alcott title but I forget which one (I know it wasn’t Little Women), and oh…How can I forget?!
My absolute favorite–The bright orange Childcraft Books!
Some of my earliest memories of reading (and earliest memories period) are of these books. I only read the poem books though. I looked through the other titles but they didn’t appeal to me and I couldn’t even tell you what they where about. (This probably says a lot about the type of adult I’ve turned into.)
And to be honest (yet again) the pictures were the main reasons I loved these books. But I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, like that’s some weird thing, of course I loved the pictures.
But oh man, my favorite poems that I would make my mom read over and over again (or later when I could read by myself I would read over and over again) were The Three Little Kittens, The Sugar Plum Tree, and The Duel. I think my mom really liked Eugene Field because she kind of championed his poems and Wynken, Blyken, and Nod was always her favorite. (It didn’t become one of my favorites until later.) Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Swing was a big one too–I still love that poem.
At first I would go through the book with her and pick out the pictures that looked interesting to me (usually of things like mermaids, kittens, fairies, merry-go-rounds, or trees made out of candy) and then, after a while, I developed favorites and would request them, read them to her, or take the book out and read it on my own over and over and over again.
So wow, I looked it up and I just found The Sugar Plum Tree…
and I’m such a dork but that pretty much just made my entire day. This image does not do the picture justice but it was really quite beautiful. I wanted to be that girl in the blue dress so bad. Ha, and I supposed I still do. (Look at all that candy!)
And now I know how I have to end this post…
Have you ever heard of the Sugar-Plum Tree?
‘T is a marvel of great renown!
It blooms on the shore of the Lollipop sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
When you ‘ve got to the tree,
you would have a hard time
To capture the fruit which I sing;
The tree is so tall that no person could climb
To the boughs where the sugar-plums swing!
But up in that tree sits a chocolate cat,
And a gingerbread dog prowls below–
And this is the way you contrive to get at
Those sugar-plums tempting you so:
You say but the word to that gingerbread dog
And he barks with such terrible zest
That the chocolate cat is at once all agog,
As her swelling proportions attest.
And the chocolate cat goes cavorting around
From this leafy limb unto that,
And the sugar-plums tumble, of course, to the ground–
Hurrah for that chocolate cat
!There are marshmallows, gumdrops, and peppermint canes,
With stripings of scarlet or gold,
And you carry away of the treasure that rains
As much as your apron can hold!
So come, little child, cuddle closer to me
In your dainty white nightcap and gown,
And I ‘ll rock you away to that Sugar-Plum Tree
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town.
Thanks for all the books mom and dad.