Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homes Are Where the Books Are

By the time I moved out of my parents' home, at the age of eighteen, I had lived in twenty-two houses.

And that wasn't all.  Those houses had been located  (in order) in Los Angeles, New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.  Never the same part of Los Angeles twice.

I list the cities because they comprise an impressive pattern of coast-hopping, but to me, at the age of four, or seven, or eleven, or fourteen, it really didn't matter whether the new house was in a new state.  At those ages, a move of eight blocks, expecially if it involves a change of schools, is such a complete disjuncture that it might as well be reincarnation.

My parents liked to move.  Their three sons hated it.  Each time, we had to start over: new school, new friends, new enemies, new teachers, new neighborhood, new places to play in (and avoid) -- new everything.  The girl I had the crush on: gone.  The friend whom I thought I'd know forever: gone.  The teacher who told me I could be a writer: gone.

On the other hand, gone also were the witnesses to various humiliations that even now, many decades later, can make me writhe in self-loathing.  And gone was the audience for my most recent failed personality.  I could make up another one and try it on, with no one to look at me oddly.

And, in fact, I got better and better at passing for someone kids my age might like.  From being an arrogant third-grade brain who didn't bother to conceal his disdain for his less-quick classmates, from being the sardonic sixth-grader who protected himself from rejection by being proactively unpleasant to everyone in sight, I gradually developed into the tenth-grader who was actually (that loathsome word) popular enough to be a member of the good clubs, get elected Student Body Vice President, star in every single school play, and date the girls other guys wanted to date.

Sounds a little sociopathic in retrospect, but someone who played as badly with others as I did when I was little can benefit greatly from a total change of cast.

Where all this is really taking me, though, is to books.

When everything comfortable in my life was left behind, I read.  I read anything I could get my hands on, but the first books I owned personally were Oz books.  Beginning in third grade, once a month when I got my allowance, I would walk through the woods (remember woods?)  to a department store (remember department stores?) called Woodward and Lothrop's.  (This was during one of our longer tenures, in Washington, DC, where we lived in only three houses.)

I'd sort through the Oz books on the bottom shelf, looking for one by L. Frank Baum that I hadn't yet read and avoiding at all costs those by the dread Ruth Plumly Thompson.  I might go for one by Jack Snow, who worked really awful puns into his stories, but the original Oz -- Baum's Oz -- was the place for me.

And then, when I was eleven, I took down from my mother's shelves the thickest book on them and read, Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but . . .  A whole new chapter began in my life.  For three days, I lived with Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and that nattering twit, Ashley.

From that I moved to the novels of John O'Hara and John Cheever and James Gould Cozzens, the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini and Frank Yerby ("The sweet blue eyes of God," Alceste swore.)  My parents, if truth be told, probably liked possessing books, and being seen to possess books, more than they did reading them, so they hung on to them.  Many of the volumes on their shelves had been popular in the forties and fifties and (had I but known) had been swept beneath the carpet with the other dust rats of outmoded literary taste years before I read them.

Made no difference to me.  I devoured them.  By the time I was twelve, my literary playmates were all adults (except for Huck Finn), and then--drum roll--I read Raymond Chandler.  And there it was: the kind of fiction that expressed how I felt about the world -- that it was all questions, few answers, and occasionally treacherous.  But in which someone who was willing to go down those mean streets might be able to fix, temporarily at least, a tiny corner of it.  Pretty much everything I've done since, creatively, at least, was already present in me when I finished Farewell, My Lovely at the ripe old age of fourteen.  When I look back on it all, I can only wonder who I would have been if we hadn't moved so much.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. What a great account, Leighton.
    My parents never moved once. For not particularly exciting reasons I did a bit of school hopping during the 4 years of primary school, but I attended the same high school for 8 years. No chance of reinventing myself at all.
    I wasn't allowed to buy my own books until I was about 15. But, no one ever checked what books I read from the bookcases at home or borrowed from the library. I too went through the Mark Twain (fancied Tom Sawyer something rotten and hated Becky Thatcher) and Gone With the Wind stage before falling line, hook and sinker for Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Balzac and Zola. What I didn't know about gambling, murder and adultery by the age of 16 wasn't worth knowing.

  2. Tim,
    I loved this post.
    I, too, moved a lot.
    And it resonated with me.
    Except that your Chandler was my Ambler.

    I wish I could take credit for this post.
    I'll betcha you picked it up from my Facebook page.
    I've downloaded an app, and I now send all of the MIE posts over there.
    Which could be confusing.
    But, if you scroll down to the end, you'll see that we all sign our own.

  3. With the exceptions of all the moves and somebody telling me I could be a writer, there are many points to which I can relate. I don't know if I could have fit in if I tried but I am a loner, always was.

    There weren't any books in the house but my mother did recite nursery rhymes starting when I was an infant. I think that may have helped develop memory. I also have a photographic memory which I rarely exercised.

    The first day of first grade, we were seated in alphabetical order (a trick used by all teachers in order to learn how to put names with faces). I was right next to a bookcase and a pulled out a book. As I went through the book, the only word I could't figure out was "said". I remember the frustration close to sixty years later. But that failure made me determined to puzzle out whatever new words I came across.

    While you were being arrogant about your brain when you were in the third grade, my mother and the nun who was my third grade teacher decided that "things came too easily for me" and that needed to be set right. So, whatever grade I earned on a test was altered to something lower. My mother always told me, "you're not as smart as you thing you are", forgetting that she had conspired to ensure that I thought I was dumb as a stump.

    The positive side of that was not that it made me try harder, it made me realize that trying harder wasn't going to get me anywhere so why bother. Reading, however, came effortlessly and when I realized I had the key to the magic kingdom of books, I knew I had found a place where I was really at home. My experience is the converse of your's; books were where my home was.

    My mother wouldn't allow such disgusting trash as Gone With The Wind in her house. The local librarian must have been in on the chat with my teacher and mother because she wouldn't let me take out any books that weren't from the children's room. So,I found a place where I couldn't be seen from the circulation desk and I read books from the adult room. I engaged in behavior that would have ended in my library card being ceremoniusly ripped to sheds. When I found a book I liked but didn't have enough time to finish in one visit, I hid the book in a section where no one would think of looking for it. I did always return it to its rightful place when I was done. Fiction didn't improve the mind so at home reading time was often turned into productive time by being assigned a chore.

    Reading was an escape. Now I read for the enjoyment alone. I ensured that my children were surrounded by books of their choosing from the time they were little. Every Friday night, we went to a local bookstore, regrettably not one that was independent, where they could get a new book. The Friday night ritual was not something that could be disrupted. That practice turned them into early readers and created a love of reading that keeps the piles in their own homes climbing.

    The natural evolution of reading what interested them led to the creation of independent thinkers but that's the goal of parenthood anyway. Genes pass on physical characteristics but a world view is something everyone has to develop on their own (with some gentle directional maneuvers from parents).

  4. Reading for escape, me too Beth. And it's a great addiction - not fattening, or too expensive but can keep me up all night :) Cara

  5. Frankly, Tim, I think you're stuck in tenth grade.

  6. I loved this post, and the comments. I simply don't remember a time when I didn't read. We were poor and the library was my best friend. On the rare occasion I got a book of my own, I treasured it. From Little Golden Books to Nancy drew, all the Oz books, I graduated to historical novels-my mother's favorite. Pretty much everything I could get my hands on. As a corporate wife, I moved a lot, and every time I found a pediatrician, a pharmacy, and the Library-ah, not in that particular order, either. I've spent years reading for school, and my work, and now I read for pleasure, and I have no particular rules except that I like to learn something, and I'm enjoying getting to know the authors (magicians) on the internet. Now I have a fat kindle, a house filled with books, and I still use the library. I feel very rich with that indeed.

  7. Love this post! I remember one of the happiest days of my childhood was when the San Diego Public Library lifted the restriction on the number of books kids could check out at once.

  8. I only had three homes with my parents - Cape Town, Nairobi and Adelaide - and the moves were exciting changes of perspective for me, although I did lose (and make) friends. Nothing like Tim's problem though!
    But I can never remember a time that my parents didn't encourage me to read - anything I wanted to read. I'm very grateful for that.

  9. Hi, Evvybuddy,

    Mira, thanks for the nice comments and for confusing me with Leighton, who's much better looking than I am. I didn't get to the "real" classics -- Dickens, Balzac, Dostoevsky, et al -- until I was 19 or 20, and then Balzac pretty much ripped my heart out. But my favorite 19th-century novelist is still Trollope.

    Leighton, Ambler is as good as it gets, and like Chandler, he helped to invent a whole genre. I read him every couple of years and the books never seem to age.

    Beth, it's difficult for me to believe you grew up in a house without books. But have you ever made up for lost time. The solution to your 3rd-grade smarts was absolutely Dickensian in cruelty. Mine was to move me up to fourth grade, which had the immediate effect of making me the shortest kid in the class, so I stopped getting good grades until they put me back the following year, essentially allowing me to take fourth over again. I never aimed for straight "A"s again.

    Right on, Cara -- addictive but not fattening.

    Jeffrey, there have been times I wish I HAD stayed in tenth grade. I understood how everything worked, the girls were gorgeous, and everybody -- well, pretty much everybody -- liked me. I never had it quite that easy again.

    Hi, Lil, and thanks. There was something hypnotic about the historical fiction of those days (probably because it was unencumbered with facts) and it was all over the bestseller lists. Today's historical stuff all seems kind of, I don't know, glum, and retroactively and unhistorically politically correct.

    Other Lisa -- Thought you were gonna drop by the Novel. Liar liar pants on fire. Oh, well, I've struck up OTHER friendships. Like you, I remember taking home more library books than I could comfortably carry.

    Michael, only three, but what an exciting three. Just to be able to toss out "Nairobi" like that. Wasn't it prescient of our parents to encourage all of us to read? I'll never forget the day the wretched father of a friend of mine yelled at him for "sitting around all day with your nose in a goddamn book." (May he rot in hell.)

  10. I lived in one house growing up, and my parents weren't big readers, especially my father who worked hard. But I was fortunate that for much of my youth my Scottish grandfather (Hugh Scott MacGregor) lived with us, and he brought his library and a love of reading with him. I still have his books and bookcase brought from Scotland a 100 years ago. I can still recite the beginning of Rubbie Burrrns Tam O'Shanter.

    No one in the house put any restrictions on what I could read. I was lucky too that I had wonderful English teachers at school who, too, encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.

    And I've never stopped.

  11. I can relate to this post. I always read and was encouraged to read. At the age of 3, I was the youngest child to get a library card at the New York branch where I lived.

    My parents had books all over, history, fiction. My father loved mysteries so after reading Nancy Drew (I visited a friend so I could go in her room and read those), I read all kinds of fiction and started on adult mysteries at around 15.

    We'd go to the library once a week and I'd get an armload of books. I was frequently late to high school morning classes because I couldn't put my books down and go to sleep. I'm still like that. Nothing better than an unputdownable book which keeps one up all night.

    I read a lot of muckraking and social commentary starting with Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser in the mix, while reading mysteries.

    Only once when I was 15 did my parents tell me not to read a book. Being 15, I read it anyway; all of my friends were, so why not? I actually agreed with my parents' opinion on that book, that it was trash. After that, I read good books. I realized I didn't want to waste valuable time on bad books.

    I read for enjoyment, distraction, and armchair vacations. I love good wit, social commentary, and great locations.

    There is nothing to beat stress like a good work of fiction, especially a mystery. It is a no-calorie addiction. One can always find a book.

    I actually get high walking into a bookstore, looking at the displays and new books, akin to a feeling of walking into a bakery.

    And with the Internet, we book lovers can read terrific blogs like this one, communicate, learn from other readers and discuss books.

    The available of global mystery fiction, the plethora of translated books is amazing.

    And I sympathize with Beth, who turned a tough situation around for herself and her family, instilling in them a love of books which they will always have to rely on.

  12. Bit late to this, but i enjoyed it greatly. Your comment about stuff already being present when you read Farewell My Lovely aged 14 struck a chord. I read a blog piece elsewhere - can't remember where, a senior moment - but it quoted a writer (name forgotten, another senior moment) who said that many of the subjects we write about about are those that fascinated us when we were young. That while real life intrudes, and kids, heartbreak, death etc obviously affect and change us, they merely cast new light and reflection on those themes and obsessions that were borne in our youth.

    I didn't move around, but I grew up surrounded by books. I still go back to see my parents and I still browse their bookshelves. I feel almost as if some are part of me. I was allowed to read The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald aged 11. Much of it went over my head. But I do wonder if my parents had stopped me from reading it - it was probably unsuitable - whether I'd be doing this now. I moved from that on to Sharky's Machine!

  13. If you parents hadn't let you read Macdonald's book, you might have read it anyway but surreptitiously, but it sounds like nothing would have stopped your drive to read what you wanted to read. That drive is hard, nearly impossible to suppress.