What Reading Does

My reading habits were developed off of three bookshelves. Even though my parents were both avid readers, there were rarely many books laying around in our house. They were fans of the library and books came and went like guests, never there long enough to draw me in.

In my grandparent’s house (My dad’s parents) house was an old oak bookshelf with a mix. Books like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Sherlock Holmes predominated. Tales of how a single Individual prevailed against the most extraordinary odds. Alexander Dumas had an honored place in that pantheon. The Three Musketeers (Which is really about the fourth Musketeer, D’Artagne more than the three the book is named after.). The Count of Monte Christo (Still my favorite novel of all time.).

Fiction, all of them. I know that. But in my own hard times, often these heroes would come to mind as I tried to plow forward. “If they could….”. I would tell myself.

I had a great Aunt Helen who we often visited. She lived in a small town in South East Virginia. Capron, Virginia. Aunt Helen was truly one of the last vestiges of the Victorian Age. Meals were always eaten in the dining room. Place settings on the table were something out of a movie, always with the fine china and an array of forks, spoons and knives that came right out of a period movie. She was musician. teaching piano and violin. She had a black cook/housekeeper who took care of her right to the end.

Her bookshelf was something out of the 19th century as well. British novels of the that century prevailed. Fielding. Thackery. Dickens. Austen. I thrived in those books and their formal language, in the formality, in the holding back of emotions even as the heros were in deeply emotional situations. It reminded me of my own household, where there was no language of feelings. I developed a taste for the language of the time that I still love. Give me a good 19th century romance any day and I will gladly while away the hours while it rains outside.

My other grandparents, my mother’s parents, had books too. Not scads and scads of them ,In fact, you had to look for them to find them, They were in the den, on the top shelves over my grandfather’s golf trophies. Out of sight mostly except for an always curious young kid who always wondered “What’s that?” (I still have a bad habit that way, often poking my head into closed off places in museums and historical places.).

On those top shelves, pushed to the back, was quite the collection of 1940s and 50s pulp novels. Lurid covers. Suggestive titles. The books were never as scandalous as the covers, but they painted a world of film noir, before I had ever heard the term or seen any of those classic movies. Dames. Tough talk. Hard boiled detectives. I think I got my idea of beauty from the women on the covers. (I am not sure that’s the best thing, but I was young. It’s hard to change our childhood programming.)

To this day I still like to read the old pulp novels. Dashiell Hammett. Perry Mason. And I have developed a major weakness for the detective radio shows of that same era. I’d rather listen to them than watch most television.

With that mishmash of reading materials, you can imagine what a mixed bag I might turn out to be. I started reading young, so many of the novels on my relatives’ bookshelves were imprinting my elementary school brain pretty young. When I was in the fifth grade for instance, I did a book report on The Count of Monte Cristo. My fifth grade teacher contended I could never had read that nook. (It’s massive, and in that florid 19th century French style, hardly Dick and Jane.). She marched me to the front of the room and put me in the Inquisition in front of the class, hoping to embarrass me. It didn’t work. Not only had I read it; it had captured my imagination like nothing before it. I talked like only an excited ten year old can. I think it made her dislike me more. And she was not fond of me to start with.

One of the things that frustrates me about myself is that I am such a mix. I would sometimes, rather be all this or all that. To not have mixed emotions. To not be so able to see multiple sides of things. To have a single, notable, style of writing, talking, painting, counseling that I could say I was notable for. It would be, I know easier for me, and easier for the people around me to categorize me.

Instead, I feel like am a mongrel of a man. So many influences that started so young that I am neither fish nor fowl in almost every thing I do. It used to frustrate me beyond belief. Now, as I age, it frustrates me less. I have decided there is a place for mongrels.

For me, it began young. with a mixed bag of books in my grandparents’ and great aunt’s homes. Don’t tell me reading when we are young doesn’t influence us. It makes us.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

One comment

  1. Ha! I’m a mongrel too. People ask “where are you from?” and I have to say, “that depends what you mean, how recently, or where I was born, where I spent most of my life?” My grandfather (Dad’s dad) lived in a tiny cottage that had been alms cottages from the 18th century. Grandpa had a trunk full of original National Geographics. I was never bored. But it’s sad that I don’t know what became of those wonderful magazines. I hope someone scooped them up. We are like rolling stones some of the stuff we pick up sticks while the rest falls away.

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