(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.