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.
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.
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 If it is now a hopelessly outdated book, nevertheless it was an excellent introduction to the whole of history for an eight-year-old boy, and I cherished the book and reread it for years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.
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).
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?