My mom, a teacher, taught my older brother and me to be strong readers by the time we were each 3 years old. She used a variety of books including, of course, Dr. Seuss, whose books I still adore. My favorites, however, were Richard Scarry’s intricate, incredibly detailed “Busytown” books such as “What Do People Do All Day” and “Busy, Busy World.” There was so much to look at, investigate and learn on each page!
Mom and Dad both read voraciously and our house was filled with books. Books were everywhere… overflowing on shelves, piled on tables… at one point we even had an ‘end table’ that was created by stacking big coffee table books thigh high. My parents always had a book in hand as well as books by their bedside tables. Mom also always kept a couple of books in the car for when she was waiting on someone or some thing. They loved sharing books and reading to each other. Often when they each finished a novel, they’d simply trade books and read what the other enjoyed. They never preached about reading, they simply modeled it beautifully. The joy they derived from reading was so clear it made me want to read as well.
Mom did preach about reading once. It changed my life.
I vividly remember when I was six saying to mom, very melodramatically, “I’m bored.” (I of course was trying to get her to turn on The Flintstones.) She pointed at one of the bookshelves and said, “I never again want to hear you say you’re bored. There’s an amazing world just waiting for you on that shelf. Any time you think you’re bored, grab a book.” She went over to the shelf, pulled out a book with a vivid red cover, black letters and a stunning horse on the front and handed it to me. Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. By the time I finished that wonderful book my life in books and of books was cemented. From that moment on I read every day and I was also given free rein to grab any book from the shelf, no questions asked.
(I’ve always said that people who don’t like to read were given terrible books as children. Hand Beowulf to a kid and they’ll never pick up a book again. Hand a child The Black Stallion and they’ll read for the rest of their lives.)
Even more than movies, books were an enormous respite to me during a difficult childhood. From The Black Stallion on books have always brought me not just joy but comfort. Having books around me, just being able to smell inside a book, makes me feel safe and content. My personal world or the entire world can be falling apart but if I have beloved books around me, I know I’ll be okay.
Occasionally as an adult I would indulge myself and look through the titles on my bookshelves. Each individual title or series brought back a flood of memories such as where I read the book and how it made me feel. One beloved set of mine was the “Three Investigators” series, a variation on The Hardy Boys, sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock:
While my brother David loved The Hardy Boys, I loved the Three Investigators much, much more… the ‘chief’ investigator was a smart, know-it-all chubby nerd like me, so I related to him, and the series was smarter and much scarier than The Hardy Boys, who I found kind of dull. They were just pretty. Any time I saw “The Three Investigators” series on my shelf a lovely memory would return, a memory I have of a gray day when I was eight years old. I was alone in our farmhouse, feeling adult because Mom and Dad trusted me to be alone all day as they drove to Houston and back to pick up an antique they bought. I sat on a sofa in front of a big picture window overlooking a small lake, The Carpenters were playing on the 8-Track, I could smell the rain through the screen door and I was loving the book, The Mystery of the Green Ghost. That was a wonderful day. Seeing those books lined up on the shelf immediately brings back those smells, those sounds, those feelings, as does Karen Carpenter’s marvelous voice anytime I hear “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
At least I still have the song.
As comforting as books were, they did occasionally bring trouble. When you’re already not too popular as a 9 year old at school, wandering in with the rather hefty Gone With The Wind as your book for reading hour doesn’t help.
I remember another night around that time when our family was driving home from dinner at a favorite steak house. We drove by another favorite, Patrizi’s The Other Place (great Italian food) and it was surrounded by police cars.
Mom said, “Goodness, I wonder what’s going on?”
From the backseat I replied, in a very matter of fact tone, “It’s probably a raid.” “
“What the hell do you know about raids?” my Dad asked.
I shrugged. “You know, like a prostitution raid or money laundering.”
“Tom Provost!” my mom exclaimed. A rather heated argument ensued about how I could know such things already.
I was very offended they thought this information was too adult for me to know. It was no big deal to me, I’d been reading about that stuff for a while; my parents were huge crime novel fans and I often pulled off a shelf the books I heard them say they liked.
Alas, for the next couple of years, they paid great attention to what I grabbed off the shelf, which annoyed me to no end.
We read as a family at night and, when I was in high school and my brother was in college, the four of us once a year would go someplace tropical, each bring 5 or 6 books and lay on the beach and read every day. Those were great trips. I still love to take trips just for reading and when I do, I love planning which books I will bring. I always bring too many but I’d rather have choices if one goes south. It’s why I relate completely to this wonderful and very funny 90 second video about Rory Gilmore and books:
Soulmates, Rory and I. And yes, Lorelai, it is a sickness but I’m thankful to have it.
All told, then, the loss of my books in the house fire on Dec 26th, 2020, more than art or my pots and pans or family photographs, is what has hit me most. The final tally was 1,832 books headed to the city dump. Which doesn’t include, in an attempt to scale down, the 17 boxes of books I brought to the city library over the course of 2019. Those put me way over 2000.
Honestly, it was out of hand. You can hear one of the amazing Glendale fireman, on their public recordings as they were putting out the fire, struggle onto the landing of the stairwell where there was yet another overfilled bookshelf. As the large equipment on his back hit yet another bookshelf, causing books to spill out all over the floor, you can hear him remark, “I think we have a packrat.”
I swear I am not a hoarder or a packrat. I just love books.
May I tell you one more story about my life in books? I have more than a few but I love this one. A huge favorite of mine as a child was The Little Red Lighthouse and The Great Gray Bridge:
This is a gorgeously illustrated book about a little red lighthouse who thinks it will lose its purpose when a great gray bridge is built above. It is magnificent and thrilling and had a huge effect on me as a child. The message is that anyone or any thing can and does have a purpose, a message I really needed to hear back then. I still had that original copy and pulled it off the shelf often.
A few years ago I was in New York City and for the first time ever, took the Circle Line Tour all the way around the city. You start down on the lower east side, travel up the East River, around the top of the island and then down The Hudson on the west side. I’d been to NYC many times but never done this tour nor had I been to that furthest part of the island. It was very cool to see so many things I’d never seen before.
I’m at the bow of the boat, surrounded by a lot of people, when we turn onto the Hudson.
I look forward…. and this is what I see:
The Little Red Lighthouse and The Great Gray Bridge.
I had no idea they were real. Before I could even catch a breath, I burst into tears and made a spectacle of myself to the tourists standing around me. But I didn’t care. I stood there and wept, so moved seeing the real lighthouse and bridge, standing and working together as they end up doing in the book.
That was amazing. And why books are so important to me. They’ve brought so much to my life. While I no longer have my collection around me, I know most of them so well they still bring me comfort. I’ve been given a few replacements by dear friends who know my favorites, so I can look on the shelf at the rental house where I will be at least a year. They bring back the memories.
I pick one up daily, open it, and breathe deep. That smell is more comforting than macaroni and cheese.
And I make the best macaroni in cheese in the world.