One thing my parents did that, on reflection, was very cool was buy boxes of old books for me when I was young. I was insatiable – one of those kids who always checked out the limit of library books twice a week – and aside from being a good way to keep me in reading matter, I think it all those old $5-a-box books influenced me enormously as an adult reader. I grew up in a college town with several bookstores and a good library, and I'm sure there was no shortage of that type of suburban book sale. It’s a very imprinted set of memories: the musty smell that hovered around the cardboard boxes, the slightly rough and often torn dustjackets, the roundish, easy to read bold Book Antiqua type, the weird eclectic stuff my parents must have had a good time picking out. Much the same way certain viscerally pleasant memories get transmuted into your own personal litany of kinks once you're an adult, those are mine. Some of them, anyway... this isn't that kind of blog.
There was a certain type of anthology published for children back in the day – I’m going to say the first half of the 20th century up through the early '60s. They were part of that whole optimistic ethos of planting the seeds of interest in poetry, mythology, stories from all over the world, gripping tales from classic authors, excerpted if need be, and sprinkled with strange and beautiful illustrations – A Child’s Garden of Verses, the My Bookhouse series, Little Pictures of Japan, 101 Kitten and Cat Stories, all sorts of others. I don’t see that kind of hopeful prodding toward anything classic much anymore, and I think it’s a shame – which officially makes me a crusty, cranky old person, but this isn't that kind of blog either.
But shit, I remember getting turned on to all sorts of cool stuff that I might have encountered later, but too late to have become full-blown literary kinks. The Robin Hood and King Arthur legends, Coleridge, Poe, Sherlock Holmes, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling… just off the top of my head. The list was long and throughout my life I’ve constantly run into familiar characters and story lines. I can bitch all I want about my weird upbringing, but in that sense my folks did me a big solid.
I did my best to pass that spirit on to Gideon, and fortunately his dad had been raised with that same gentle literary prodding, so we were able to hand at least a bit of that down to him.
Not the books, though. All my childhood stuff up to age 14 – books, toys, stuffed animals, furniture, the awesome handmade red barn that I used as a dollhouse (horses downstairs in the stalls, hayloft converted to a groovy open-plan living area) – all of it is gone, lost, sacrificed to somebody else’s bad judgment and relationship dysfunction and hey, I’m not going there. But I don’t have any of it. Don’t have it, don’t know where it is, and have given up hope of ever seeing it again. I went through a period of great bitterness when it became clear that I wouldn’t have the privilege of passing any of my childhood stuff on to my own son. And now that window has closed and I’ve let go and all that’s left is a little wistful sadness for the books. The books were wonderful. I would have loved the luxury of sifting through them now and then.
Today Jeff went to the big weird open-air year-round used book sale on 72nd Street and came home with a few things for himself and a present for me: a well-loved and thumbed-through hardcover from 1964 called The Personality of the Dog. Because it looked like something I’d like, he said, like a cool kids’ book. But when I saw it, before I had even fully registered the title, I gasped “I had that!” Somewhere in their infinite wisdom as book procurers for a girl who loved words and animals, and especially dogs, my parents had picked that up. I don’t remember the stories and poems inside so much as that cover, with the (in retrospect) kind of badly drawn but still awfully endearing dog on the front. That’s the dog I grew up wanting. And it’s a book I grew up with on my shelves.
So no, I’ll never get my childhood library back. But because I have that deep-seated kink for old books and the thrill of the chase for them, and because the people who love me best are bent a little that way too, every so often an old friend comes back to the fold like that. It’s a sweet thing.