“When I think of [my childhood], the picture always rises in my mind of a summer evening . . . and I sitting on my bed, reading . . . “
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
In 1971, during a uniquely sweaty New York City summer when my eleven-year- old whininess appeared to have reached its apex, my frustrated mother arose from the sofa where she was attempting to embroider, strode down the hall to her bedroom, and returned with a well-thumbed paperback that she held out toward me.
“Here. Read this.”
“What is it?”
“I never heard of it.”
My mother raised her right eyebrow in the expression she sometimes got when I unwittingly said something that amused her. “That’s the point,” she commented wryly.
“What’s it about?” I sniffed.
“Read it and you’ll find out.”
Accepting the book with an air of misunderstood martyrdom, I skulked to my bedroom and heaved myself onto my bed. Flipping open the book’s cover with the loudest sigh I could manage, I read:
“Prologue: 1644: The small room was warm and moist. Furious blasts of thunder made the window-panes rattle and lightning seemed to streak through the room itself. No one had dared say what each was thinking — that this storm, violent even for mid-March, must be an evil omen.”
Immediately I was sucked into the life of Amber St. Clare and the world she fought to thrive in. I remained spellbound for days, swiping the thin pages eagerly until there were no more. Bereft, I placed my new best friend on the mattress and stared out the window at the apartment house opposite, completely spellbound by British history. I didn’t move until I heard the locks on the front door slide. Leaping from my bed and skidding along the hall I faced my mother the second she opened the door.
“Is that book true?” I demanded.
“What book?” she asked as she tossed her shopping bag on the bench.
My mom took off her shoes, rubbed her feet, and sighed happily. “Yes and no. It’s fiction.”
“I know Amber isn’t real but is all that other stuff real? The English civil war and Charles II and pirates and highwaymen. I know the tobacco in Virginia is real but is all the other stuff?”
My mother considered. “Pretty much. Why don’t we go to The Library this weekend and find out?”
The Library was the main branch of the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue with the immense staircase and lions out front; the one that had captivated me since age three when my mother first took me there; the one with the cool, marble entry with split and curved staircases and an aura of worshipful, silent, scholarship so vast that I had trouble distinguishing it from St. Patrick’s farther uptown.
“Yes, can we?” I followed her into the kitchen and dug cereal from the grocery bag. “There must be other books about England, right? Other characters like her? Let’s find them: I want to read them.”
Thus my mother unwittingly began my relationship with the literature that has become my life’s study. From the much-derided (but guilty pleasure) of Kathleen Winsor I moved to Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray and – my personal favorite – Charles Dickens.
I have read all of his books, some multiple times, allowing the stories to permeate my life. As I packed to leave home for college at age sixteen, I likened myself to Pip. I named a starving stray cat Oliver, as she never seemed to get enough food. Just last week while discussing a family real estate issue wending its way through the New York court system, I asked my father whether his file had grown as large as the Jarndyce’s. While studying at Trinity College, Oxford, I spent hours wandering around Bethnal Green, Limehouse, and Liverpool Street, Spitalfields searching for the lost London of Great Expectations, trying to determine where Fagin’s den must have been, and looking for the inspiration that sparked Our Mutual Friend.
Although I doubt she intended to my mother made books my life. I was the child who bought every book every month shown in the Scholastic Book Club newsletter. My husband knows that a sure way to cheer me is a trip to Bergdorf Goodman’s shoe department followed by tea at The St. Regis and a mosey through a book store. Stacks of books fill our house, so many that I have used the hardbound ones to fashion bookcases to hold the paperback ones. I have multiple editions of identical ones just in case one contains something in a Forward or Afterward that I didn’t know. I have a few autographed ones, a couple of first editions, and several mangled Children’s Book of the Month Club editions of my childhood favorites like Harriet the Spy, It’s Like This, Cat, and Primrose Day. I even have the sweat-stained copy of Valley of the Dolls that my sister swiped from my grandparents’ bookshelf and read under the covers with a flashlight.
Books are among my dearest friends. They are the past, the future, the journeys we long to take, the people we have been, and those we might yet become. They are the people we will never meet and the places we can no longer visit. They are one of the most satisfying reasons for life.
Thank you, Mommy. I love you for lots of reasons, but mostly for teaching me how to read.