The latest guest to join my Open House is Pamela Redmond Satran, who this fall wrote the absolutely hilarious book entitled, How Not to Act Old: 185 Ways to Pass for Phat, Sick, Hot, Dope, Awesome, or At Least Not Totally Lame, which immediately became a New York Times bestseller, because, well, let's face it, there are a lot of us struggling to not act old these days. I love the image she paints of a young girl surveying a tower of books on Christmas morning. And on the theory that most book sales happen in the last week of the holidays, if you're not snowed in, or even if you are, go out and buy books today!
When I was a kid, way back in the days before ebooks and ar (augmented reality – duh!), reading meant going to the library. Our town library was like something they build on a Hollywood back lot: The former one-room schoolhouse, it had varnished pine floors and dusty stacks and rolling ladders and maybe even a pot-bellied stove, though I’m may be making that last detail up. I remember lying on my belly on the floor between the stacks, lost in Anne of Green Gables or Bed-Knobs and Broomstick or, going with the magic and witches theme, Macbeth.
My parents both read copiously – my dad liked Michener, and Mom favored True Confessions magazine – but we never bought books. I don’t remember ever going to a bookstore. I don’t think I was aware that books were something you could buy instead of borrow, that you could have for your very own, and keep forever and ever.
Until the Christmas when, beneath the tree, there was the strangest-shaped package I had ever seen. It was tall, maybe three or four feet, up to my chest, in any case. And it was rectangular, but small given its height. It looked like a wrapped-up chimney, or upended railroad tie. Most definitely not like a doll, or bicycle, or board game, or anything I had seen under the Christmas tree ever before.
I remember vividly my awe and amazement when I unwrapped the strange package, to find the tallest stack of books I had ever seen. New books, unread – untouched! – by anyone else, bought for me alone.
Well, not exactly bought, as my parents hastened to tell me. Actually, these books had fallen off the back of a truck heading across the George Washington Bridge. Literally. My dad worked as a cop on the bridge, and flotsam that found its way onto the pavement was divvied up in the station house. A box of kids’ books? Hey, didn’t Joe Redmond have a daughter who liked to read?
I don’t think my parents told me this because they wanted to undercut the value of the gift, and it didn’t have that effect. Rather, I think they wanted me not to feel guilty about them having blown so much money on such an outrageous bounty. Money was always tight in our house, a fact underscored by the facts that we were allowed only two cookies after meals and Coke only on Saturdays, and I was old enough to be aware how much things cost, and what was worth the money. And books, which could after all be had for free from the library, obviously weren’t worth the money.
Plus, these books weren’t especially ones I wanted to read. Some were for boys, some were for younger kids, some were just dumb.
But it was the having that was the thrill. The crispness of the pages, the unthumbed glossiness of the covers. Even if I didn’t care much about what the words said, I fell in love with owning those books.
More than in love with: hooked. I know I’m supposed to support libraries and champion libraries, and I do, in theory. I know it would make sense for my family budget to use the excellent one in our town rather than trolling the aisles of our two independent bookstores or heading to the nearby Barnes & Noble or clicking on the Amazon link. But I just don’t want to.
That first thrill of owning a book might be why, even though I buy myself every single book I want, I still ask for books for Christmas. I love the look of that hospital-cornered package, the heft of it, the inevitable surprise on unwrapping, even though you know all along what’s inside. It might not be the most expensive gift under the tree; it might have even come for free. But it’s the one I’m going to remember the longest.