How did the reading habits of your parents affect you?

My parents were both firm advocates of education and voracious readers. My father liked the books he grew up with, and history books, while my mother was more inclined to British murder mysteries and American paperback novels.

Initially, this affected us not at all. For my parents began by reading children’s stories to us. They were our bedtime reading. If, later in life, I began developing stories before I fell asleep, it was no doubt due to the association my parents had established between stories and bedtime.

Kindly ole storyteller, now racist stereotype

Kindly ole storyteller, now racist stereotype

It was the habit, not the contents, that stuck with me. The only book I actually remember from that period was Uncle Remus (1880), which I admit was an odd choice for a New England father to read to his children. But those stories had been out and about in my father’s childhood, and he imagined his children would enjoy them, too. We did enjoy them, in fact. But they were so far removed from our experience, set in an idyllic antebellum plantation South, that they did not stick with us, nor shape our attitudes toward race.

More influential was the encyclopedia set my parents had bought. If you were responsible parents, you had to have an encyclopedia set for your children to use, just as you had to send them to piano lessons. (Two years of them, for me.) The encyclopedia was the abridged version of the Funk & Wagnall’s of the 1950s, 2/3 the size of the 36-volume standard set, and missing the very last volume, “Wash – Z.” I suspect I will be fulfilling the suspicion of many of my readers by admitting I tried to read my way through the entire set. I did not succeed, but I got quite an education that way. Later, my parents bought the first several volumes of an encyclopedia set that was sold on a weekly basis at the nearby supermarket, but it was a clearly inferior product. The only good part it had was a set of book summaries at the end; it is solely because of the drawing of Kitty in that encyclopedia’s book summary that I finally got around to reading Anna Karenina.

Van Loon's art may have been primitive, but he did not talk down to his young readers

Van Loon’s art may have been primitive, but he did not talk down to his young readers

My father’s bookshelf nourished my love of history. He had a 1926 edition of Hendrik van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, complete with van Loon’s artistically simple yet evocative illustrations. If it is now a hopelessly outdated book, nevertheless it was an excellent introduction to the whole of history for an eight-year-old boy, and I cherished the book and reread it for years afterward. For that matter, it still sits on my bookshelf today, visible from where I sit. On the same shelf is a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children (1930), a collection of stories and folklore about lost and buried treasures in the Southwest, especially his native state of Texas. To use terms common to professional historians, van Loon was my macro-historical romance, the big picture, while Dobie was my introduction to micro-history and the complex relationship between the stories people tell and what actually happened. Oh, and I dreamed of going to Texas and digging up all those buried treasures for years and years.

You could smell the Old West right from the start!

You could smell the Old West right from the start!

The Regency was cheap in paperback

The Regency was cheap in paperback

My mother’s reading was more in the paperbacks that circulated among her middle-aged fellow wives and mothers. Oh, she had her special interests, and Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries was one. So were Georgette Heyer’s historical romances and Daphne du Maurier’s novels and short stories. (I’d never have read The House on the Strand otherwise; in fact, the copy in my library is the one my mother had; I hope she doesn’t want it back!) If that sounds like a lot of British writers, well, my mother was born in Scotland and didn’t emigrate to the United States until well into her twenties. That’s not to say she neglected popular American writers, including the usual run of scandalous and trashy novels. I have to say I did not benefit from the latter, as I was too young in my pre-teen years, and had a heavy reading schedule of my own in my teen years. Though the fictitious memoir Coffee, Tea, or Me? (1967) served as a tepid introduction to extra-marital sexuality as a perfectly normal practice, as well as inspiring fantasies of airline stewardesses that were forever to be unfulfilled. Guess I’ll just have to settle for the airplane rest room sex scene in Snakes on a Plane (2006).

Time travel, ancient Greece, one-night stands in the past, present, and future - what's not to like?

Time travel, ancient Greece, one-night stands in the past, present, and future – what’s not to like?

My own reading habits mystified my parents. I spent so much time with my head in between pages that they consulted my school-teacher aunt, who advised them that I “would grow out of it.” Sorry, Edie, looks like that’s one prediction that isn’t coming true this side of the grave. At least my mother allowed me to subscribe to the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club for a few years, even though their cheaply priced hardbacks were a strain on the family budget. This indirectly caused an amusing misunderstanding several years later, when I bought George Orwell’s 1984 at the book section in a Sears store and mentioned it to my mother. She was astonished, wondering how in the early 1970s I could spend $19.84 to buy a book. I had to explain that 1984 was the title, and that the paperback actually cost me only 75¢.

And how did your parents’ reading habits affect you?


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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14 Responses to How did the reading habits of your parents affect you?

  1. My Dad was an avid Westerns reader! His favorite author was Zane Grey. My Mom read the Bible mostly, and magazines. She loved her magazines!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Ah, magazines: where we got pictures before the Internet! I had to go to Crater Lake as an adult after seeing picture of it in “National Geographic” as a child. Though not all magazines had pictures; “Reader’s Digest” was a standby in the house as well.

      Which ones did your mother enjoy the most?

  2. TAWilliams says:

    Great post!
    My mother was a big reader which turned me into a big reader growing up. She was big into supernatural books & the like, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for those type of books!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      My father told some ghost stories, and I know my mother read some supernatural stories, because I remember a Daphne du Maurier collection, “Kiss Me Again, Stranger.” But I seem to have developed a taste for the supernatural mostly on my own; I recall my parents being surprised when I asked them to buy me an LP of Halloween music, if they could find such a thing!

      Any particular supernatural story that sticks out in your memory?

  3. E. J. Barnes says:

    My first exposure to world history was V.M. Hillyer’s “A Child’s History of the World.” Another entertaining but hopelessly outdated book; it was in fact already outdated by the time I read it, as the text had occasional reminders that the author expected his readers to be boys. A quick check shows that modern homeschoolers still read this book, although some of them have mixed feelings about the early chapters that start with cosmic evolution and cave people.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I looked through online reviews of Hillyer and van Loon, and find many criticisms are the same: hopelessly outdated, Eurocentric, religious views some will find offensive, etc. And these things are all true.

      And yet . . . I got a love of humanity, progress, and toleration from van Loon. Maybe I was in one of the last times and places where one could read van Loon profitably. I do know I tend to take what I find of value from what I read, and discard the rest, even more so when I was younger than now.

      Every single one of the books I’ve cited here could be called Eurocentric, outdated, or considered to embody attitudes now considered offensive. I do not agree with many of the attitudes expressed in them now. Yet they are what I read in my youth, what my parents passed on to me. And I did get good things from many of them.

  4. crimsonprose says:

    My parents never bothered to decorate, they just bought more books. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the picture. Consequently, I was bitten early by the book-bug. My every penny of pocket money, every half-crown received as presents was spent on books. But I’m not sure my parents’ choice much affected me, though I had read most of my father’s books before leaving school (including some then considered raunchy, by D.H.Lawrence). But apart from those last, he was an avid fan of Dennis Wheatley. Most people know him (if they know him at all) for such Black Magic treats as ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘To the Devil A Daughter’. But that is far from all that he wrote. There is a mega-series of espionage stories featuring hero Geoffrey Sallust. He tried his hand, too, at science fiction with a plot that featured Martian abductions. But he wasn’t the author I most liked on my father’s shelves. That was Frank Yerby. It seems no one now has heard of him. His early books I remember were set in the ‘deep-American South’, plantation epics (titles not remembered). But he, and I, soon progressed to (more titles not remembered) political terrorism, the French Resistance, the life of Jesus (in Judas My Brother) and the one that sticks with me, ‘Tobias And The Angel’. Yep, I reckon that’s the one that has most influenced me. I still write of angels. My mother, on the other hand, while stocking some classics opted mostly for the squishy feel of e.g. Monica Dickens (granddaughter of Charles).
    Today, the only thing I share of my mother’s reading habits is her comment on Mills & Boons Erotic series (bless her, she didn’t know that’s what they were) that she didn’t want that part of the heroine’s anatomy rammed into her face. As for my father, we both enjoy a good whodunit, and we still pass books between us (but not the ones he has that are written in Dutch which I’ve a feeling could be pornographic – 🙂 ).

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Wheatley’s been featured in the “Fortean Times” magazine for his occult stuff; I’d not heard of the others. Yerby’s name is familiar; I’m sure my mother had a few of his, probably the plantation South ones (she was a big “Gone With the Wind” fan). And I take it Mills & Boons are Harlequins or equivalents, perhaps a bit more risque if your mother’s complaint is accurate.

      You were clearly well-furnished with books. I had to branch out at an early date to the public library in town, about a 20-minute walk away at the other end of downtown, where I was repeatedly putting the library staff in turmoil with odd questions. They had to let me loose in the adult section earlier than my age allowed, simply to keep up with me.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Oh, I also used the public library, and I, too, after some persuasive talk was allowed to borrow the adult books. It was there I first encountered some of the Sci-Fi greats. For years thereafter that’s all I would read – until, deciding I was to be the next bestselling author, I turned again to the classics as a belated literary education.. I smile; such dreams.

  5. Judy says:

    Probably the volume that influenced me the most was my father’s favourite book of poetry entitled,”One Hundred and One Famous Poems”, an anthology compiled by Roy J. Cook, editor.It contains many poems of WWI and WWII (not just though) along with a prose supplement of such items as the Gettysburg Address, The Ten Commandments the Magna Carta and so on. I especially loved that it contained Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby of Boston,Mass who lost 5 sons in the Civil War…which I believe led to rules on how many sons could be put in harms way at war from the same family. The letter is said to be a model of purest English rarely if ever surpassed! And so it really is. Mrs. Bixby any relation?

    But, my mother especially is a reader and read to us at night before bed. Her preferences were in the area of Historic Fiction. I loved going the library and smelling the books and reading the jacket blurbs for what I wanted. Raced through the classics. Favourite series,,,,which Mom and Dad really did not start me on, was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan Series…read them all. Was insulted at the insipid characterization given in our TV shows of Tarzan and his son!! Still feel riled!! Also, loved The OZ books which Mom did begin by reading aloud. Fell into Sci Fi, but that is a severe deviation from the tastes of both parents. Mom likes earth grounded stories and not cold hard space. I like cold hard spaced as long as the characters and themes are interesting.

    The other day the subject of racy novels came up and I was recalling one of the first ‘shocking’ novels was Forever Amber. Mom confessed to overhearing her mother and a friend talking about it and proceeded to read it on the sly to see what all the fuss was about as a teenager.

    Mom and Dad both influenced reading…though the genres warped over time!!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I am indeed a cousin to the 5 sons of the Bixby letter (not to ignore Mr. Cromwell Bixby, the father, but he was dead before the war), but it’s not a close relationship, being through my 7-greats-grandfather. And you probably know by now only 2 of the sons were dead; there had been a mix-up in the records.

      Oddly enough, the earliest historical fiction I remember reading was an account of the life of the only survivor of the massacre of the Ummayad dynasty of caliphs, who went on to found the Caliphate of Cordova. It was a library book, so I don’t even recall the title any more.

      Quite a batch of classics you were read, there. I must confess that to this day I’ve yet to crack open an OZ book, though the “Fables” comic book series swiped material from quite a few of them.

      So did you ever read “Forever Amber” yourself?

      • Judy says:

        Well so interesting despite the distance of the relation!! You know the letter and how lovely it really is then!!

        No ,I have been curious to reading Forever Amber but never got around to it. You?

        • Brian Bixby says:

          I can’t say I have either, and I gather it’s quite lengthy: the first edition that came up in amazon runs about 976 pages. Take THAT with you to the beach!
          My current reading schedule has some of Tim Powers’ novels on it, as I’ve been looking for other writers who mix history with sci-fi/fantasy.

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