When I was seven years old I began to disappear into books. My mother described herself for years afterwards, wandering through the house calling me, while I somehow made myself both deaf and invisible with a book open in front of me. I didn't hear her and she didn't see me. I actually wasn't there. I was in Oz.
The Oz books were the first written stories to claim me. On the last Saturday of every month my father would haul me across town (Washington, DC at the time) to Woodward and Lothrop, an old-style department store with a bookshop in it. Along one long, low, kid's-height shelf were arrayed all the chronicles of Oz. I spent my entire month's allowance on one of them, and then I was lost to the world. When I finished that month's book I'd choose at random one I'd already read, and dive back in. All I needed to be perfectly happy was a tornado to pick me up and take me there.
But then something happened that I later came to regard as interesting. I found that I liked some of the books much more than others, and that the ones I most enjoyed had one thing in common. They were all written by L. Frank Baum. Baum, I would learn later, created Oz and wrote the first in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, plus about a dozen more. The Oz books I disliked most were written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and the ones I disliked slightly less were by Jack Snow. Both Thompson and Snow had contributed to the series after Baum's death.
This puzzled the seven- or eight-year-old me. All three writers were telling stories about the same place, and often with the same characters. Why did I like one better than the others? I finally decided it was tone: Miss Thompson (as she styled herself) was like the aunt who tells a child a story not because she likes stories but in order to get to the moral. Jack Snow reminded me of several men I had observed at my parents' many parties who had a few doubles and got loud, These men were occasionally funny and occasionally interesting, but always loud. Mr. Snow, I realized with the blind snobbery of the very young, was not in the same social class as Mr. Baum.
I had unknowingly become a critic as well as a reader.
When I was twelve we moved back to California. One day when I was home alone I went to my mother's bookcase and pulled down the fattest book I could find. It was by a woman (which almost put me off, after Ruth Plumly Thompson) but I opened it anyway and read, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but . . . ." That was it; I was gone for five days. My mother swore she walked past me several times while I was stretched on the living room couch, and never once saw me, until she finally did and gave me a swat to get my attention so she could demand to know where I'd been. I told her I'd been on the couch. But, of course, I hadn't. I'd been in Atlanta and at Tara, hanging with Scarlett and Melanie and Rhett and that pill, Ashley. (When, years later, I saw the movie, I couldn't believe the perfection of the casting. I think "Gone With the Wind" and "The Maltese Falcon" must be the two best-cast films in history.)
I had no way of knowing, when I fell under the spell of those books, that I was essentially setting my path in life -- that I'd spend at least as much of my time inside books as I would in the "real" world, whatever that is, and that I would end up making books as well as reading them. If I were ever to write an autobiography, I would say that my life changed forever when I was seven and the Land of Oz opened itself to me and made me aware that the world of the imagination was as real as, and infinitely richer than, the world of school and weekends.
I'm reminded of all this by yet another book, a real dazzler, the most enjoyable and magical memoir I've read in years. The Tender Bar, by J.R. Mohringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the story of a boy whose life was shaped by a bar and the people in it -- mostly men, since his father was an absentee. The writing, as befits the story of a boy who learns to love words, is as simple and austerely beautiful as Shaker furniture. At one point, seeking to help his single mother make ends meet, JR -- the boy -- takes a job in a bookstore located in a mostly abandoned mall, where Bill and Bud, the managers, quickly ascertain that JR has read nothing -- in fact, he thinks the book he was reading in school at the time was called Scarlett's Letter. A routine is quickly established:
"On Friday afternoons, Bill and Bud would quiz me about what I'd read that week in school. They would then cluck with disgust and take me around the bookstore, filling a shopping bag with books. 'Every book is a miracle,' Bill said. 'Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly -- and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake -- and tried to tell the rest of us a story.' Bud could talk ceaselessly about the hope of books, the promise of books. He said it was no accident that a book opened just like a door."
I've been blessed to have opened a great many of those doors. To tell the truth, I can't imagine what my life would have been if I hadn't.
And I know that I'm sort of off-topic here, but what's happening in Thailand right now is too heartbreaking to write about, so I'm doing what I always do. I'm taking refuge in books.
Tim -- Sundays
Making a List and Checking It Twice
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