I vaguely remember a time, far in the past, when I couldn’t read. Even then, I was surrounded by books – our tiny living room in the Arizona row home was wall-to-wall with bookshelves.
Both my parents were “desperate” readers. She loved reading so much that if she picked up anything with text on it, we would find her, hours later, frozen in one spot, eyes glued to a book on Irish poetry or the old newspaper that lined the drawer.
In order to entertain me as she graded papers and did dishes, she used to put on records of Alice Through the Looking Glass. I listened to them so often that I nearly memorized the story. Later, it was the Oz books – the entire series, along with the Ruth Plumly Thompson continuations.
When we finally learned to read in first grade (from the old-fashioned Dick and Jane books – really) I loved it right away. The thought that those black marks on a white page meant something was magic – real magic, that could transport me to different eras and countries in the turn of a page.
Did I say Arizona? Summers there were HOT. My parents scrimped all year to save up enough to take us to Ireland, and there we spent weeks in my grandparents house. There was no television there, only an old radio to be used for the six o’clock news.
As a result, my entertainment was books. My grandmother had old volumes of girls’ school stories – Angela Brazil and the Chalet school books. The volumes were filled with ancient Brit slang and funny, copperplate illustrations of females from a vanished era. They wore huge hair ribbons and dropped waists, and I loved them. They had names like Philippa and Mabel, and their exploits and successes were completely real to me.
I read so much that it became a vice – Mum used to threaten to take my book away if I didn’t wash the dishes or at least clear a path through the books piled up around my bed. When I had my head in a really good story, I was lost to the outside. People would talk to me, and I wouldn’t respond. I wasn’t there at all, you understand – the book had wafted me off to some fantasy land. (Still, it must have been extremely annoying at the time.)
The pages of those books were often covered in a soft “bloom” of age – yellowed spots that spread like lichen throughout the books. As I read, I inhaled the tantalizing scent of must and old leather. Years later, I would seek out that smell in old bookshops and libraries, and it never fails to quicken my pulse.
Now we have Kindles and Nooks, and I like them as well. I enjoy carrying entire shelves filled with books on my iPad, and I always having a few books going at once. Still, nothing can replace the feel and the smell of those old books, as well as those gorgeous illustrations.
My dream vacation is to stay in Scotland or some rainy, windy place, in an old inn with soft beds and huge fireplaces. I’ll bring stacks of books and stay for a few days, just reading. Maybe I’ll take a long walk each day to compensate for the cream teas I plan to eat.
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