This is the last in a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are on the Book House books, Library Days , Hardy Boys and other Boy of Summers books, and how books came to be Books in Our House.
Books came into my life as hardbacks. (Even my Golden Books would qualify.) Without necessarily being conscious of these impressions, I learned to love the feel and heft, the quality of print and paper, the smell of the hardback book.
But into my early teens, the cycle of the book experience was incomplete. I got to choose books from the public library, but I had to give them back. The books we got in the mail stayed on our shelves, but I mostly didn't select which books came into our house to stay.
I couldn't buy a book at a bookstore because there weren't any. And they were too expensive anyway. But when I was in sixth and seventh grade, things began to change. I was sent to the Cathedral School on North Main Street in Greensburg, which meant I had more opportunities to be downtown. I also got my first paper routes, and though they were closer to home, I went frequently to the offices of the Greensburg Tribune-Review, which were also on North Main.
So there were frequent meetings at the newspaper office, where we learned how to sell. (There were usually inducements for attending, like a free movie ticket.) I became such a fixture and favorite in the circulation department that one of the staff gave me her "start" so I could qualify for a trip.
The combination of a little pocket money from the paper routes and my boy-about-town range of activity, especially downtown, meant that I was increasingly a customer for paperback books. They didn't need bookstores to sell them--they were on shelves and racks in the little confectioners and drug stories on and near my paper routes, and in various stores downtown.
This in fact is how the modern paperback industry was born. For Greensburg was not unusual--lots of places didn't have a bookstore. The same was true in England where the Penguin line became the first paperback to prove the market for cheaply priced books sold almost anywhere, and set the example in the 1930s. American paperbacks followed soon afterward.
Drug stores and neighborhood stores might have a rack or two of paperbacks, but the actual paperback wonderland in Greensburg was located in the two newsstand/tobacco stores off of Main on Otterman Street, below the two movie theaters, the Manos and the Strand.
|This photo from years earlier reflects my memory: on the|
corner to the left of Manos movie theater was the
tobacco and news shop with racks of paperbacks. That
it was once a billiards hall accounts for its size and shape.
It was a forbidding place at first, with old men, some slightly disreputable. I may have been warned about it, because I don't remember going in when I first started trekking to the Saturday matinee movies at the Manos.
I learned later that there was a reason for any reputation it might have. Along the inside wall that bordered a side street was a long row of telephone booths. They were well kept, as I recall, all in a single polished dark wood structure. There was a door to the street beside them.
Directly across that side street was a bar, which at one time was the center of illegal numbers and other gambling for this side of the county. (The bar became famous among mystery fans for its frequent appearance in K.C. Constantine's "Rocksburg" series of police procedurals.) Not too much of a stretch to imagine that the phone booths were convenient for bookies.
But aside from the tobacco counter along the other wall, with rows of newspapers and magazines, much of the rest of the space was taken up by rack after rack of paperback books. Getting up the courage to enter the place was one thing, but actually browsing the books was another. I wasn't entirely comfortable doing so until I was in high school. That was partly because a lot of those paperbacks would be classified as pulp fiction, or worse.
|You get the idea.|
Moreover, it was a bit tricky to distinguish the Brontes from the Spillanes because all the cover illustrations tended towards the lurid (Menand describes examples in this excellent review of paperback history.) A woman not entirely dressed was a common feature. None of which would have met the nuns' approval. (My mother would have simply called them vulgar.)
At first my youth probably made the proprietors nervous. While not actually pornographic, a lot of their books--or their covers--could bring irate parental attention. I probably felt unwelcome, as well as daring the near occasion of sin, and suspicious eyes watched me. But I risked it, to find books.
|At least this scene is actually in|
the book, sort of.
Eventually I became a persistent searcher, and there were lots of places to look once my eyes were opened. That tobacco store was prime, and sometimes the newsstand a block or so down Otterman. (By the time I was high school age, the proprietors became indifferent to my presence.) But also drug stores, the bus station, and increasingly, the new supermarkets. They didn't often have those spinning racks but they did stock paperbacks in shelves below the magazines.
It took a lot of spinning, staring, crouching, picking up, thumbing through, to find the gems. But they were there. It amazes me now that they were there.
I know I bought paperbacks before eighth grade, but I don't remember any titles. They were probably few--my main source of reading outside school was still the public library. But a lot of the books I remember buying in eighth grade and high school I still have--often the very same paperback. They're the ones I took with me to college. Any others I left behind disappeared, one way or another.
These were the first books it was important to me to have bought and to own. They were the beginning of at least partly conscious self-definition through books.
When JFK was elected, I bought every related book I could find, including one called The Kennedy Government, which was basically a set of bios of his cabinet. (I could then--and still can--name every member of JFK's cabinet, just as I could--and can--name the starting lineup of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. I can't do either for any other cabinet or team.)
Later I got a book of JFK's speeches from his first two years (To Turn the Tide, fifty cents), and The Quiet Crisis (a big 95 cents in 1963) which is an early book on ecology by his Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, still worth reading.
Through his interviews, Kennedy was a kind of tutor on the presidency for me, so I bought a book he recommended (and is still a recognized classic in political science), Presidential Power by Richard E. Neustadt (60 cents.) Later I bought Decision-Making in the White House by JFK's assistant and speechwriter Ted Sorensen. I found a similar kind of book but about the Eisenhower years: The Ordeal of Power by Emmet John Hughes (75 cents.)
The early space program was part of the Kennedy excitement, though I would have been very interested in it anyway. So one of those early purchases was First Americans into Space, profiles of the Mercury astronauts by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. My "Collector's Edition" (as it says on the cover) was 35 cents.
There were other books around the house in those years that grabbed me and led me further on parallel paths, like the paperback of Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders that my father brought home, or the anthology of English literature I found in a trunk of books left behind by my uncle and aunt in my grandmother's attic. There were several poems of Shelley in there that became important to me at the time, especially his elegy on the death of John Keats, which I read several times as I struggled to come to terms with the assassination of President Kennedy. And I explored more in the library--I remember reading my first Sinclair Lewis, for instance. I also received hardback books as Christmas and birthday gifts (usually from my mother), like a volume of then-recent poems by Robert Frost, In the Clearing.
But most of the books that defined me at that time, as I prepared for college, came from my paperback forays. I'd obviously become interested in politics, but I had always written. (It was a play I wrote about a political subject which won a national award and got me access to a couple of college scholarships.)
I also got a copy of The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber, which introduced me to a different kind of written comedy. I also read Thurber's book about his years knowing Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker (The Years With Ross.) That made an impression, as I wondered about what a writing career was like.
It was then that I fell under the spell of J.D. Salinger. Perhaps it was through the New Yorker (for I remember the much later thrill of coming upon the last story he ever published, after years of silence, in an ordinary issue that had just come out, and I was reading on a bus or train station bench) or in some other way (like his Time Magazine cover). But it was major.
Catcher in the Rye was intensely popular in my generation--most of my friends read it, and it was a point in common when meeting strangers (for instance, on debate trips.) That voice got into the heads of young writers, and was hard to shake. (I recall one story by a teen writer which was about precisely that.)
But I didn't know anyone else who had quite as seriously internalized Salinger's tales of the Glass family in his other books as I had. Though there was a lot of Christian imagery and message, these stories more or less introduced me to some ancient philosophy (I got a friend's sister to take out a volume of the Greek Stoic Epictetus from her college library for me) and especially to Eastern approaches. I'd pick up that thread in college and later with my interest in Zen and Buddhism.
By the time I was off to college, I had some other paperbacks as well as a few hardbacks to take along. I had the pocket anthology of Robert Frost's poems. I had Conrad's Lord Jim and a few others. But mostly I was flying blind, with just these hints and indications.
One of those stories, and (apart from the Chekhov) the only one I remember was "The Best of Everything" by Richard Yates. Several years after I'd read it alone in my room in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, I met Richard Yates when he spent a few days at Knox College, where I was in a writing class. I told him how important that story had been to me, and how I had come to read it.
He was astonished that I'd read Writing Fiction all on my own, just because I saw it and could afford to buy it.
"Where did you find it?" he asked.
I guess I was surprised at his surprise. "At the supermarket. Or maybe it was the tobacco store."
In more recent years I've come back to hardbacks, which when purchased used or remaindered are often cheaper than new paperbacks. With larger print and a reassuring permanence, they seem more comfortable at my age.
But beginning with those high school years, paperbacks began to define "books" as I knew them--as I read and handled and bought them, and talked and wrote about them. That acceleration began in college, where assigned books for lit classes and other classes, and even many textbooks, were paperbacks. And my purchases in the college bookstore were overwhelmingly of paperbacks.
My voracious forays into the bookstores of Chicago, Iowa City, Boulder, Berkeley, Cambridge, New York, Pittsburgh and--with the advent of mall chain bookstores--even Greensburg, were for paperbacks.
Larger paperbacks of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thoreau, Calvino, Beckett, Stoppard. Several volumes of James Wright and others in the Wesleyan poetry series. All of these summon specific sensory memories of those paperbacks, their context in time and place, their aura:
Absorbed in paperbacks of A Separate Peace and, years later, The World According to Garp through long train trips. Reading Stendahl's The Red and the Black in line at the Cambridge unemployment office. Pound's ABCs of Reading on a bus. Dorothea Brande's Becoming A Writer on a plane. Calvino's Cosmiccomics at the coffee shop. Long nights with Pynchon's Against the Day. For example.
(Not to mention Larry McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers.I spotted a paperback of it one Sunday afternoon in the Boston apartment of a young woman I had mixed feelings about. I never saw her again, but I bought the book and read it several times in succession. It was astonishing, even if I started out slightly annoyed that the title was close to one I had designated for my own use.)
A popular paperback like Catch-22 could be identified from a distance, its blue cover showing on a coffee shop counter, peeping up from a back pocket, indicating a definite cache. The books you carried defined you, and occasionally, the books you read. They informed your forming soul.
And so this journey continues, as it began in the public library, the living room, the drugstores and newsstands, the building blocks of this lifetime house of books.