Monday, March 15, 2010

Wild Books I Have Known

Years ago I ran a mainframe for a mail-order pharmacy. Users felt free to call me or come to my office (sometimes run to it) for help with any type of hardware or software problem, but not many came by just to chat. So I was pleased when Annie, a newlywed accounts receivable clerk, started visiting. She was a quick study—I asked her to demonstrate new software to the other users—smart, and personable. Annie was extremely fast on data-entry and we missed her when she went on maternity leave. She would make a good assistant, I thought.

When Annie returned from giving birth to an adorable little girl, our talks resumed. We talked about babies, store gossip, computers, movies. I mentioned I was reading Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers one day. Annie said, “I wouldn’t have a book in my house.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “You have no books in your house?” I said.

“Nope. I hate to read. We have a television, though.”

I stammered my way through the rest of the conversation and sat stunned after she left. I was well aware that many people cannot read, do not read, or cannot stand to read. But it was incredible to me that someone of such obvious intelligence chose not to read.

All thoughts of making her my assistant disappeared. Managing the information technology of the store demanded a lot of reading—and writing. Would she refuse to read the manuals lining the walls of my office? How would she learn to program if studying flowcharts and software libraries made her cringe? Could she write a quick how-to?

Soon after, the store manager chose an assistant for me, and although I didn’t chat as often with Annie, my thoughts sometimes turned to the little girl growing up in a household without books. Would Annie or her husband break down and purchase Where the Wild Things Are? Would her daughter be lulled to sleep by Annie’s soft voice reading Goodnight Moon or by a laugh track on an insipid sit-com?

I thought of all the books I treasured as a child. Before I could read. I was fortunate to have parents who valued books and reading and read to me every night. I could not imagine going to sleep without a story. Mother Goose. Little Golden Books. Beatrix Potter. Babar. I memorized them and spoke the words along with my mother as she read. I corrected my father if he skipped any pages. The books I loved someone to read to me became the first books I learned to read. Knowing them by heart helped me turn the ink on the pages into the words I loved to hear.

Receiving a book for a birthday or Christmas was wonderful and I remember them all. On the Banks of Plum Creek started a Laura Ingalls Wilder collection. The Mysterious Island led to a love of Jules Verne. I treasured a volume of Aesop’s Fables with its breath-taking plates. Books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Grimm and Andersen. Even Johanna Spyri.

My parents kept books they received when they were children, lovingly inscribed from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Thus I read early editions of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Lad: A Dog. A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales and Wild Animals I Have Known. After five children they had accumulated a respectable library of children’s books and references. I read and reread the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bobbsey Twins. Lands and Peoples, The Lincoln Library, and The Book of Knowledge were on our shelves, too.

Although the volumes are long gone to jumble sales, I can describe to this day their covers, the print on the page, how the books felt in my hands and how the pages felt as I turned them. Even how they smelled.

I lost touch with Annie after the store closed. I will presume her daughter grew to responsible adulthood, but if she never discovered the pleasure of reading, I can’t help thinking of the worlds she did not wander in the marvelous realm of her imagination, and the wonders of the real world she missed.