My three Rs are all “Readin’”

(Mainly because writing and arithmetic don’t start with Rs, and yes, I’m being pedantic.)

From as early as I can remember, I’ve always been an avid and voracious reader. I know that it started out with my parents reading to me before I can even remember, but from the second my brain switched on from the mush and I became aware of sitting on my bedroom floor when I was about two, I remember there being books there.

Of course, actually learning to put letters together and read words took a little longer, but I had the advantage of going to a local preschool — I think it was free and run by an Episcopalian church that was, ironically, right across the street from my mother’s Catholic church. That’s where we first learned basic words and the alphabet and all that, and even some basic Spanish.

I definitely remember being able to read some time during Kindergarten because that’s when my parents invited my teacher, Miss Jones, over for dinner.

Side note: I’ve always wondered, but never found out, whether she wasn’t actually a relative, since Jones had been my father’s mother’s maiden name, and grandma had sufficient brothers in Southern California. On the other hand, of course, it’s a ridiculously common name.

Still… she was my only teacher that my parents ever invited over, and I remember showing her my room and my books, and being particularly proud of reading to her from one on human anatomy, which even detailed the whole process of how a baby develops in the womb.

Sure, it wasn’t some college-level text. It was pretty much aimed at the grade school market. But still — I was probably precocious. That must have been related to having been born two months premature, and it’s a trend that continued later in other areas.

Going into grade school, my strong points were always language and never math. In fact, the girls were the ones who naturally excelled at math, and if only adults had paid attention to this at the time, they would have been the ones led down the path of becoming scientists.

Every time in about second grade that we had to fill out a multiplication table, the girls would have their pencils down long before the boys and yet, really, how hard is that? Well, okay, when you’re just learning it, very hard.

But give me words and I was in heaven, and I even started writing my own stories when I was about seven — science fiction, of course — based on my own toys. Sure, they weren’t really that good, but they were a start.

Where the reading thing really took off, though, was probably around fifth grade, when they started some standardized reading-assessment program, probably to place us as we went on to junior high. I remember that it came in this huge box with a series of reading assignments arranged numerically and color-coded. The idea was to make it to the end of the box, where it changed from reading short stories to reading progressively longer books.

One other thing: We didn’t all start at the same place in the box. We took a preliminary test and got our starting position from that, and from what I can remember, I started out pretty damn close to just jumping to the books — five levels down at the most, maybe, when the box had something like thirty-two.

I polished those off pretty quickly, and then read through all of the books, and we weren’t even all that far into the school year, and this left my teacher with a dilemma — but one that turned out to be an amazing breakthrough for me.

Since there was nothing left in the box to read, she and my parents agreed that I could check out books from the library and read and report on those, so I could read almost anything.

Well, almost anything. I mean, I wasn’t going to be doing Naked Lunch or Lady Chatterly’s Lover, obviously. But I could certainly read Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, or Mark Twain and James Thurber. Basically, I was doing work way beyond fifth-grade level and loving every second of it.

It was also probably around the beginning of fifth grade or end of fourth that I started to hit puberty, by the way. If you’re doing the math, that would have put me at nine or ten years old. Not physically impossible, but statistically rare. I have no idea whether the two were related, but it always kept me among the tallest people in my classes, and one of only a few true bases in sixth-grade choir — all of us swimming in a sea of male tenors, altos, and some sopranos.

The latter two groups would always ask us, “How do you hit such low notes?” We’d just look at them and say, “How do you hit such high ones?”

It’s all perspective.

In junior high, I was dropped right into the AP English track, and we started reading at a high school level right off. On top of that, since I was in those classes with a bunch of great lit nerds, we very quickly started swapping reading suggestions, which were all over the place.

That’s how I discovered the literary highs — Joyce, Pynchon (sort of), Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, a ton of science fiction authors, and more; and the commercial lows — The Exorcist, The Godfather, Jaws, every other book made into a movie, and a bunch of novels that were probably only published in order to keep the sales racks in grocery stores, bus stations, and airports full.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. That latter bunch were all fun reads as well and it was in this latter crap class that I discovered the science fiction writer Larry Niven, who did have a huge influence on a lot of my themes and ideas as an adult. I read everything of his I could get my hands on, not realizing until years later that his politics were pretty toxic.

Oh well… at least I managed to scrape off his authoritarian-libertarian taint when I borrowed concepts, so there’s that.

But another great thing came along once I hit junior high and my parents let me ride my bike farther, beyond the library. I discovered used book shops in my neighborhood where my allowance money would buy me a big-ass bag or two of all kinds of books — and while they didn’t make it obvious at the time, I think my parents were extremely happy that this is what I chose to spend my money on.

I think that my dad even gave me a “raise” or two around this time.

But the other best thing ever in that era were the two times a year they would have a gigantic used-book blow-out at our local mall, all for charity — and I would bike my ass the three miles down there as soon as possible after school got out on Friday, and then early in the morning on Saturday and Sunday to spend all day.

And there were dozens and dozens of tables running along both sides of the split walkways along both floors and all around the anchor-store courts, all raising money for various organizations by selling used books.

I never paid any attention to which organization was selling, unlike now. All I was interested in were the books, and the adults never seemed to care what I, a random teenager, handed them to count and charge me for. So, yeah, I gobbled up some pretty adult stuff when I was only thirteen or fourteen.

Honestly, it did me good, and I had a pretty extensive paperback library that covered the entire range — literature from classic to modern, fiction and science fiction from high-brow to low, biography, history, science, dictionaries and reference works, and so on.

I even took the time to create my own card catalogue of it because I was basically a total nerd.

But after each day of one of those mall book sales, I would somehow ride home with four or five improbably stuffed brown paper bags, scoring maybe close to a hundred books for a couple of bucks.

I think the reason that everything was so cheap was because of market glut. There would basically be fifty thousand copies of every single New York Times best-seller for the past two or three decades, for example, so those would get maybe a nickel, or six for a quarter.

The same was true for those famous American authors, so all their stuff was similarly priced, maybe from a dime up. This made the rare quarter to dollar finds totally worth it, and there were plenty of those.

I’d make a big deal and say that these were the prices when Federal minimum wage was $7.25 an hour but… oops, it’s still that! And I wasn’t even working for real money yet, although I think I might have been in the “dad hands you a $20 every week” range, with the occasional “Hey, you’re going to go buy books? Here’s more” supplement.

Yeah. I was a book junkie and my parents enabled it. Good for them.

I’m still as addicted to reading to this day, but I’m not as addicted to books because I’ve gotten over the need for physical media. Seriously. And I know plenty of bibliophile friends who consider that sacrilege, but come on.

I dumped my LP collection in college because it was heavy and stupid and the sound quality sucked. Cassettes? Thankfully, they were a brief stop before CD, but every CD I’ve ever owned I’ve either since digitized, realized I’ve never wanted to listen to again, or can  listen to any time I want through whatever streaming service.

And, again, I don’t have a gigantic and heavy box of crap to haul around.

Dare I say it, the last time I moved, I did the same thing to most, but not all, of my book collection. I grabbed those volumes that had some importance to me, and they’re still sitting on my shelves now. But the ones that were easily replaceable, either physically or online… left behind.

One thing I hear a lot is that people can’t deal with  missing out on the feel and smell of books but, really, come on. What about the crack and hiss of the imperfect sound quality of LPs? If you can honestly say that those licorice pizzas are superior, then please get out of this century.

You don’t need to feel or smell a book to read it. All you need are the words. And I can easily put the entire Library of Congress on the Cloud, or access it from there, and put huge chunks of it on my own PC in a space a lot smaller than the OED. Plus I can read it from anywhere without having to schlep physical volumes with me.

Bonus points: If I want to make notes on and highlight an eBook, I don’t have to mutilate the original permanently. Or even the digital copy. And I can certainly mark my spot without bending over a page.

So here’s to the digital world, where I could have brought home every used book sale and used book store purchase I’ve ever made, complete and readable, on a memory card the size of my thumbnail. And still enjoyed every bit of it.

Then again… this exact scenario was one of the dreams all those science fiction novels — high brow and low brow — taught me from day one. One day, all human knowledge will be available to anyone at the touch of a screen.

Too bad that it still comes along with so much human stupidity. Oh well…

Image source: The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA. Photo by the author, © 2019.

Sunday Nibble #54: Words, words, words

One of my lifelong joys has been used bookstores and or used book sales, and from a very early age, whenever I could ever avail myself of one or the other and ride the three miles home on a bike with several heavy bags on the handlebars, or stuff my car trunk with several boxes, or whatever… the downside is that actually being able to patronize such places were taken away as an option a year ago.

And then, last week, I happened to stumble upon a place that was near where I grew up, but not there when I grew up at all, and wound up spending a ton of time crawling the shelves and coming out with a just amazing stack of stuff that cost around thirteen dollars.

One thing that they had a lot of that’s usually hard to find: Books of sheet music, generally collections of popular songs from various years or decades, or on various themes. I wound up with Television Sheet Music Hits (from Warner Music, so not surprisingly all Warner Bros. produced shows); Biggest Hits of ’92-’93; Popular Hits of the ‘90s; 50 Songs of WW II; and Bradley’s New Top Movie Tunes (© 1994), also Warner Music.

On top of those, I grabbed an AP Spanish Language study guide, presumably for the AP test 2018, and didn’t even realize it at the time that it came with a CD full of MP3s. It’ll be interesting to go through it and see how much I’ve learned on my own in the last seven-ish years that I didn’t learn taking five years of Spanish in high school — or at least which didn’t stick.

Two funny Spanish AP stories. When I got to junior year and the same Spanish class I’d been with since starting middle school, we all landed in AP and on the first day the teacher asked us whether we’d rather study grammar or literature.

The vote: Absolutely unanimous for grammar — and she vetoed it, saying that we’d learn grammar better by reading the literature. As a result, someone in the class found out that the University Library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) was available for L.A. Unified School District students. We couldn’t check anything out, but we could go in and read or copy as much as we wanted.

But the important part: They just so happened to have every book we were assigned to read for the Spanish class, translated into English. We alternated going down there to make copies of the shorter works, which we’d then share with each other. For longer books, we’d just read them in the library and make notes.

Consequently, we really didn’t learn shit about Spanish or its grammar that year because we all took the lazy way out. Now, at the time and like my fellow students, I was vehement in believing that learning grammar was the way to go. Looking back on it now from the point of view of someone who became fluent from self-study, I see that we were all wrong. Immersion, including reading everything, is the way to go.

Not long after I’d left high school, I’d pretty much lost my Spanish other than knowing basic words and short expressions. Anything complicated or conjugated, forget it. Now, I’ve gone way past translating in my head and can communicate with native speakers just fine.

The other funny Spanish AP story: I was scheduled to take the AP placement exam on a Saturday morning. The Friday night before was a high school football game, and I was in band. I played drums mainly because you can’t march with a piano. I don’t remember whether I’d forgotten my mallets or broke one, but we were on the field.

I ran back up to the classroom to grab a pair. On the way back down, I decided to try my powers of flight instead of actually taking the stairs, and twisted my ankle. I still played and marched the whole game, but wouldn’t get a chance to go to a doctor until after the test.

I showed up using one of my dad’s golf clubs as a makeshift walking stick, took the test in a lot of distracting pain, and I don’t remember doing all that well, although it was well enough to get me the college credits for that course.

Combined with my other AP credits, I actually started university as a second semester freshman, with the huge advantage being that I automatically wound up registering before all of the first semester freshman, so I got every class I wanted, and the pattern repeated.

Of course, instead of just graduating a semester early, I had to be ambitious, so in addition to my major in Communications, I had a double minor in Abnormal Psychology and Theatre, which all kind of go together in a way.

The four other finds in this bonanza were sort of random. The first, A Day in the Life of California, is a coffee table picture book created when a bunch of professional photo journalists were sent out to take pictures in the state, all on the same day: April 29, 1988. It was a massive undertaking and, from what I can remember hearing about it at the time, a pretty big deal.

The book itself tells me that it resulted in 115,000 photos, and it wasn’t the first time they did this. The back flap of the dust jacket lists six other entries in the A Day in the Life of… series. I have no idea what the original price was. It’s currently on Amazon for $25.95, but I got it for one dollar.

Another book, called Field Guide to Luck, was targeted as a how-to guide on using the lucky talismans of various cultures in order to get lucky, but at the same time, it’s just a handy reference to all kinds of folk superstitions, which will always be useful as a writer.

Another interesting random find was The Ultimate Fantasy Sourcebook and CD-ROM, a collection of free-to-use hand-drawn art depicting fairies, wizards, dragons, castles, and more, which seemed like it might be useful in future art projects. Finally, there’s Mathematical Lateral Thinking Puzzles, which are always good for keeping the brain sharp.

For example, you have ten letters, each written to a different person, and ten envelopes each addressed to one of those ten people. You put the letters into the envelopes blindly. What are the odds that exactly nine of them are in the right envelope?

Post your guesses in the comments, and tell me about your favorite used book store.

Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.