It’s not an unusual story. Child living on a farm outside a small town at a time when there weren’t malls close by to wander in; where life centered around family, school, and church. Sounds idyllic, right? Not when each of those is a source of discomfort, even pain.
My family life was…complicated; let’s leave it at that. School was a place where I could excel, but that brought endless rounds of teasing. Church was a frightening place where I was told even the smallest transgression, e.g., not eating all my dinner when there were starving children in China or Africa, would send me to hell.
By the time I was six I despaired of having any sort of future other than what I already lived.
But, to the rescue came my first grade teacher.
Books Were the Answer
I came to first grade reading on a fourth or fifth grade level, thanks to my grandmother. Needless to say, the Curious George books the teacher read to the class weren’t engaging. I sat bored through all her reading lessons because, well, already knew that. I could have had a teacher who, literally, bludgeoned me into behaving in reading class, but she was a good teacher. She and the school librarian agreed that I could spend reading class in the library–provided I read books the librarian gave me.
Up to this point, all I’d ever seen were children’s books, my mother’s paperbacks with covers she told me never to look at (You know what happened, right?), and my father’s agricultural magazines. Now, lest you think my parents were Philistines, they weren’t. Like I said, family life was complicated. While I was in first grade, my father bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the subscription version where every year you got an additional volume that included all the events and changes from the previous year.
Having had my appetite whetted at the school library, I devoured those encyclopedias, from volume A through volume XYZ. When I finished, I started them all over again. My favorite turned out to be volume S, which contained a large section on “Stars,” where I saw pictures of red giants and white dwarfs, of supernovae and binary systems. I loved those books, and one of the saddest days of my life was when a flood in my mother’s basement destroyed them. (For some reason, likely because I wanted them, she wouldn’t let me take them to my apartment when I moved out. Complicated family life, remember?)
At the end of first grade, the librarian told me she had a present for me. She gave me a copy of Anya Sewell’s Black Beauty, because that was one book I read over and over during my daily sessions at the library. I couldn’t believe her kindness, but I remembered my manners and thanked her.
I still have that book. Somewhere along the line, its front cover got pulled off. No one at my house would own up to it. It could have been my little brother who liked to go into my room and muck things up. It could have been my mother’s ceaseless anger at everyone and everything. All that matters is that the book survived.
Yes, books were my escape from everyday life. Not long after perusing volume S, “Stars,” for the umpteenth time, another librarian in another town gave me a well-read paperback copy of a book entitled, The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets, a science fiction novel from the late 1950s, early 1960s.
And a life-long love of science fiction was born. Fiction, science or otherwise, took me places the encyclopedias couldn’t, and I was the English lit nerd who read and loved every single volume of required reading in high school. I took lit electives so I could read more. Same for college, and I ended up three credits short of having a third major after history and political science.
Peppered all through this was more science fiction. While in college, I joined something called the Science Fiction Book Club. Every month I got two books. If I decided to keep them, I sent the ridiculously low (compared to now) payment. If I didn’t want them, I sent them back. I ended up keeping most of them. That book club introduced me to Harlan Ellison, and I became a writer because of him.
My parents thought the sci-fi was “escapist nonsense.” Well, yes, that’s the point. As long as my grades didn’t suffer, my dad in particular didn’t worry. The point, he said, is that you read. Of course, when I found Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, not to mention Mao’s Little Red Book and a biography of Che Guevara, he wasn’t too happy.
Books + Escape = It Doesn’t End
Every place I’ve ever lived–apartment or house–I’ve had an overabundance of bookshelves. All the shelves are full, some of them twice. I have baskets of books. Books stacked on every available surface. On occasion, I pack ones I can live without in boxes and donate them to a local library. Then, I buy their replacements. I’m at the point now where most of what I buy are eBooks, stored on my Kindle because there’s no room on those shelves.
Books, in particular, have gotten me through 84 days of self-isolation where I’m trying to assure I don’t become a plague victim. Those worlds, familiar and alien, are there to take me away from a president who wants to put troops on the street and cops who crush the tracheas of black people. I’m not hiding from all that; sometimes I simply need to “go” elsewhere for a while. When I “emerge” from whatever book I’m reading, I find it’s usually enhanced my sense of social justice.
I suppose you can guess I scoffed at the woman who recently advocated getting rid of your books to increase your joy. Lady, the books bring me joy.
So, if you catch your kid reading constantly, back off. Let them. Better yet, think about where he or she is escaping to and join them.