When my son was a toddler, I kept a list of the missing books in my purse so when Mom and I would go to the second hand stores I would know which ones I still needed. As soon as my son Matthew could talk, I became obsessed with buying him the same childhood books my grandmother Nana had bought me. She handed down and blessed me with this innate “book love.”
Common family lore was the tale of how even though she and BaaBaa were broke, he had not complained when in 1954 Nana could not stop herself from purchasing the set of that year’s Encyclopedia Britannica, including a custom bookcase with a slit at the top to hold the large added atlas, from a door-to-door salesman. I imagine Nana had hoped the voluminous volumes to help my mother write her high school class assignments would be a magic panacea to quell Mom’s rebellious streak. The encyclopedias had disappointed, collecting dust after Mom dropped out of school in 10th grade to work as a carhop so she could buy a white convertible. Twenty years later, I used the books to write high school reports and ten years after that, as soon as Dan and I bought our first house, the bookcase and its contents ended up in our foyer.
When I was in junior high in 1970, Nana had repeated the encyclopedia experience she had had with Mom, and decided that I should have a $200 finely bound collection called The Harvard Classics. The dark green books contained the text of American historical documents, Famous Prefaces, and works from Shakespeare, Dante and Tennyson, among the rest of their ilk. The pricey books’ bindings still retain their stiffness as if new. The curriculum of Southern California schools I attended in the ‘60s and ‘70s concentrated more on how to make an A-line skirt, beginning algebra and the California Gold Rush than reading classic literature.
For recreational reading while I grew up, my tastes leaned toward Agatha Christie mysteries borrowed from the library or the paperback edition of Valley of the Dolls I shoplifted from the Simi Valley K-Mart when I was in 7th grade because I thought there might be some kind of age limit if I tried to buy it from a cashier, the same as if I slapped a six-pack of Schlitz on the counter or a carton of Camels.
But after joining the ranks of motherhood, my literary pursuits were of a more wholesome variety. I needed to find the exact books that had educated and entertained me as a child before I developed my love of The National Enquirer, a habit I also picked up from Nana.
It did not matter to me that the now vintage 20-volume Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History ends with the year 1971, which was 15 years before my son was even born. The actual set Nana had brought home for me when I was in 6th grade in Simi Valley was long gone, but the first time I saw one of those thin blue volumes in a thrift store, I was spurred to begin my holy quest to have my son read the same books I had.
I never usually found complete collections in one place. Instead, I scoured jumbled thrift store bookshelves weekly, finding Volume 2 featuring the years 1734-1783 one week and maybe Volume 10, 11 and 12 at one time, paying 50 cents or a dollar for each book.
By the time Matthew was two, I had only found half of The Golden Encyclopedia Set, including number 12, which covered the subjects Paricutin (a volcano in Mexico) to quicksand. Each book’s cover was illustrated with drawings representing its contents. Volume 12 had pictures of a potato, plankton, a perfume bottle and a scary Punch puppet wearing a wicked grin and holding a stick over the supine body of a male puppet dressed in black and appearing to be deceased. The creepy images of that particular cover had stayed with me since the day Nana bought them for me back in 1964 when I was seven.
Most of the books I searched for were long out of print, but within a year I had been able to fill an entire bookcase with familiar titles I had read twenty years before. As a kid, every time I came home from school the Scholastic catalog offering books to order, Nana would press dollar bills into my hand to pay for my circled selections. These books with their cheap cardboard covers cost 35 or 50 cents in the late ‘60s.
Some books had stayed in my mind as though I had read them yesterday. Follow My Leader about a boy blinded by a miss-thrown firecracker who had finally accepted his sightlessness after building a relationship with a guide dog. The World’s Best Fairy Tales, a thick red book Nana had mail-ordered through Reader’s Digest. My all-time favorite was Beautiful Joe, the dog version of Black Beauty, illustrated with drawings of the poor puppy as he grew up with no ears and tail after his first cruel master had cut them off.
Twice a week Mom and I would hit the thrift stores in downtown Glendale and the first area I would head to was the used book aisle. “I’ll pick you and Matt up at ten tomorrow morning? Or is that too early?” Mom would ask when she called me the night before each planned outing.
“We’ll be ready,” I would assure her, grateful for any chance to get out of the house since I had no car and no other adult to be with until Dan got home from work. Squeezing into the low-flung back seat of Mom’s shiny blue Firebird to stow diaper bag, stroller, car seat and toddler was still easier than the bus.
I was delighted when at the age of three Matthew learned to read after I found some tattered Dick and Jane books from my elementary school years. But something changed in Matthew as he graduated to the 4th and 5th grades. At that age I had been addicted to the Nancy Drew series so I had accumulated the entire Hardy Boy series, awaiting him on two shelves in the den, including a rare first edition with book jacket of Volume 2, The House on the Cliff, for which I had splurged a whole five dollars on at Value Village.
“I need something to read,” Matthew said one summer day, flopping onto the couch.
“I’ve got something,” I said, and he followed me into the den where I pulled books I thought he might like. He turned his nose up at every exciting title of the three Hardy Boys’ books I showed him. “How about The Trolley Car Family?” I asked, hoping the cover illustration of kids popping out of every opening in their cable car home would pique his interest.
“That looks stupid.”
I grabbed an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, Scary Stories and More Scary Stories to Fall Asleep With. “They’re even better than that Encyclopedia Brown book you liked last month,” I promised.
“Those books are for little kids. Never mind. I’ll just play my Nintendo.”
My heart broke as he said the words. But soon, I was forced to accept that my son had outgrown my collection of old favorites. He was a much more sophisticated reader than I was at that age. I was happy to buy him each new edition of Goosebumps and then thankfully, his love of George Lucas films helped supplement his growing video game addiction to include an old-fashioned paperback.
“Will you drive me to the library?” Matthew asked a week later. Be still my heart, I thought. “Nick next door told me about the Star Wars books.”
A huge series of books based on the Star Wars films, written by different writers kept Matthew busy over the next three years and expanded his taste to adult science fiction by authors like Matt Crichton. But still, I keep my hard found collection of children’s books, even if they are only fit for a fourth-grader raised in an Amish vacuum. I can read them to my preschool grandchildren one day, I figure. And when the day comes to downsize into a retirement condo, my husband will bitch and cry out in pain as he wrenches his spine lifting the heavy boxes of books. I am the curator of lost children’s classics, assigned to saving them from destruction or becoming lost memories. Besides, those gorgeous green Harvard Classics Nana bought me so long ago look classy lined up on my living room bookcase.
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