Growing Up with Books

My parents weren’t readers themselves, but they were conscientious enough in raising their four children to stock our modest home with sets of encyclopedia and other resources. Many of these were adult resources, not the children’s books that fill large sections of bookstores, though there must have been a few of those too.

We had an Encyclopedia Britannica, of the kind common in households in an era long before the internet. We had a set of Harvard Classics, 50 volumes compiled and edited by authorities at Harvard University in 1909, an edition printed in 1961. I still have the set of Harvard Classics. We had a 10-volume set called The Book of Popular Science, probably the 1961 edition seen here; grey-bound volumes with articles about how atoms are like solar systems and how room-sized computers were revolutionizing the world. Alas, I don’t know what happened to those (they probably moved with the family to Tennessee, in 1978, when I stayed on my own in California).

I was told in later years that I was the type of boy who would sit and read the encyclopedia, for fun. I don’t actually recall being so diligent.

And we had a one-volume “red letter edition” of all of Shakespeare’s plays, published by John C. Winston in 1952, “with the most famous quotations printed in red”. I still have this.

We also had a set of children’s books called The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls, like this, nine volumes with stories in some and games and crafts in others. I don’t know what happened to that set either, but I was intrigued enough by my memory of one volume, Things To Make and Things To Do, that I searched the web to identify it and found a used copy via Abebooks a couple years ago and browsed through it. I recalled the instructions for making flowers out of crepe paper, and rebus puzzles.

Finally there was a set of story books called Book Trails, eight slender volumes bound in embossed red leather, ranging from elementary fables in the early volumes (with vivid color illustrations typical of children’s books of the era) to longer tales and myths in later volumes. Somehow I acquired only six of the eight, and I’ve never been able to track down the two separate missing volumes. (I’ve seen complete sets on sale…)

There were also a handful of books in the house that had been my mother’s when she was a girl, notably one Nancy Drew novel, and three novels in a similar series about a detective’s daughter named Penny Nichols. And there was one called Blondie and Dagwood’s Snapshot Clue, based on the comic strip characters. Of these I read and reread the Penny Nichols volumes especially.

I discovered public and school libraries by the time I was in second grade, in Santa Monica, and a few of the books I read from those became lifelong favorites that I tracked down my own copies of years later as an adult. By far my favorites were Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, novels about a family of two boys and two girls living in Britain in the 1940s and 50s, who during ‘holidays’ or convalescence trips were always getting into ‘adventures’ involving criminals, often in semi-exotic locales (e.g. Scotland, Wales, even Europe and northern Africa). The books were alluring in part for their exoticism—the children’s terms of speech and habits of dress and assumptions about school vacations and proper meals were utterly unlike anything in my experience.

One of the volumes, The Mountain of Adventure, included a couple scenes that may have been the first science-fictional notions I ever encountered. [Edit: well…in print. Not counting kiddy cartoon shows like Space Ghost.] The story concerned a holiday trip to Wales, where the children go off on a donkey ride into the mountains and encounter a mad scientist (of German vintage) and his secret laboratory inside a mountain, where he is trying to invent wings that enable men to fly, via some sort of anti-gravity substance. A key scene involves the children’s discovery of a laboratory where some glowing substance exudes a range of colors – including “a color the children did not know!”. The idea that there could be *another* color struck some chord of awe within me.

A second point about Enid Blyton’s Adventure series is one that echoed over the next few years, and indeed to an extent, throughout my life. That is: I was never there at the beginning, or if there at the beginning, missed some of it along the way. Meaning in this sense, the Adventure books I discovered in my school and public library (Vanalden Avenue Elementary, in Reseda, and the West Valley Regional Branch Library, also in Reseda, that I used to walk to from our house, only had five of what I came to realize were eight volumes in the series. The five were Castle, Valley, Mountain, Sea, and Circus, i.e. “The Castle of Adventure” and so on. It wasn’t until the 1980s, in my late 20s, that I learned how to order books directly from the UK, where Blyton was (and still is) much more popular and her books had always been in print, and ordered the three volumes I’d missed: Island (the first one! the origin story!), River, and Ship. I still reread the entire set once every ten years or so, and have blogged about it…

My grandmother’s house, the Apple Valley house, was decorated by a couple rows of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. These were popular in their day, but seen to have gone extinct in 1997 (they began in 1950), according to Wikipedia (everything is on the internet these days!). They were anthologies, published every two or three months, of abridged versions of current popular novels and nonfiction works, four or five per volume, shortened for casual readers who might be intimidated by full-length books, or who simply liked the convenience of having current popular books pre-selected and condensed for them. One of them, the Autumn 1961 volume, included a condensation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust (published earlier that year). I’m sure I read that, not in 1961 but likely a few years late – again, one of my earliest exposures to science fiction.

My grandmother had one set of encyclopedia herself: a 10-volume set called The American Educator Encyclopedia, published in Chicago in 1938 (when my mother and her brother were three or four). I managed to ‘inherit’ these after my grandmother’s death in 1984. These are fascinating, partly for the overtly, uh, nationalistic and rather clichéd view of the world outside the US, and partly as a prism into how cultural values have changed since then. There is no article in this set about Gustav Mahler, for example, who died in 1911 and whose reputation was fairly obscure until the 1950s, since when he has become one of the most popular symphonic composers of all time. But not in 1938.

Next post in this autobiographical thread will be about how methods of buying books have changed so many times since I first discovered ways of buying books, in the sixth grade.

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