Throughout the long-gone days of my childhood a thick, worn paperback sat on top of the lid of the tank of our upstairs toilet. Wilt, a biography of Wilt Chamberlain, the Hall of Fame center for the Los Angeles Lakers. My father had checked out the book on the only trip he ever took as an adult to the public library. We had taken a family outing to the library, and while he was killing time waiting for my brother and me to make our book selections, the basketball legend’s biography must have caught his eye.
I don’t know how much, if any, of the book he got around to reading. I never read any of it in my daily rounds to the toilet. Nonetheless, the book became a fixture in our bathroom, remaining on the tank lid far beyond the usual two-week checkout period, so that the next time I went to the library (flying solo, this time) I was told by a grim-lipped librarian that I may not check out any books because someone in our family owed the library several dollars in fines for an overdue book.
Thus are the sins of the father are visited upon the children.
I don’t know what became of Wilt, if someone returned him to the library — my father certainly did not— or if he tumbled accidentally into the toilet bowl and was eventually tossed out with the trash. But one thing I do know. Nobody ever paid the fine, which grew week by week till it surpassed the cost of the book itself.
Throughout my early teen years, I tried many times to check out books from the public library, hoping that through some glitch (a misplaced index card, a sudden stab of compassion for a budding young reader) the librarian would just this once look the other way. No such luck. Each time I stopped by the circulation desk with my stack of books and a disarming grin pressed on my lips I was coldly turned away. Meanwhile, the overdue fines for Wilt continued to mount till they surpassed ten dollars — a fortune for a working-class family in the early ’70s. In effect, my family was banned from the library for life.
In an act of teenage desperation, I applied for a second library card using my grandmother’s address. My grandmother — a large woman who still spoke with a thick German accent — was not what you would call a warm and fuzzy person, which is why I did not tell her of my little criminal enterprise to defraud the public library.
In the end, my scheme failed miserably. It wasn’t enough that the Belleville Public Library denied materials to the children of deadbeat borrowers, but they literally conducted comprehensive background checks on those folks applying for a library card, as if a paperback book were in the same league as a home loan or a job with the CIA. So when my grandmother received a phone call from a librarian saying that I had applied for a library card and inquiring if I did in fact live at that address, my grandmother replied absolutely not! (Not long after that epic fail I heard my grandmother tell this story to some of my older relatives and they all had a good, long chuckle over it, while I cringed shamefaced in the next room.)
So I put the idea of books out of my mind. This wasn’t a particular hardship; our’s was not exactly a family of readers. We were a modern 1970s family that got its news and entertainment from a screen, not the written word, even if our only TV was a cheap portable black and white Sylvania with a jumpy picture, a busted rabbit ear antenna and a coat hanger jammed into one of the broken ears. I cannot recall a time when that television set was ever turned off, not even while we slept. We lugged the TV from room to room like a COPD patient carries her oxygen tank. During dinner, the TV perched on the kitchen counter tuned to Gilligan’s Island reruns, and after dinner, we lugged it back to the living room. On muggy summer nights, we dragged the set outside, plugged it into an extension cord, set it on the back porch steps and watched the Cardinals baseball game while my father grilled burgers. After we were marched off to bed the TV would end its travels in the bedroom of my mother and father, and the entire family would drift off to sleep to the muted sound of audience laughter as Johnny Carson delivered his nightly monologue.
Experts say that one of the best ways to predict a child’s future academic success is whether he or she grows up in a home full of books. This apparently holds true even if the child doesn’t read the books. All that matters is that the books are in the home, like some ghostly presence — a process akin to osmosis. They don’t even have to be great works of literature. Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling will do just fine.
I do not know whether this is true, but it seems plausible. Obviously, if you grow up in a home without books that says something about your parents’ values and about their upbringing and level of literacy. As for our home, the only books under our roof were tucked away on a little red-painted bookshelf beside my older sister’s bed.
When she was sixteen my sister took a job at the neighborhood burger joint. With the little money she earned, she was able to buy record albums and cheap paperback books, so our family’s ban from checking out library materials had less of an impact on her. My sister’s room, however, was off-limits to us boys. Of course, there was no practical way to enforce that prohibition. My sister worked most evenings and she was unable to lock her door because for a long time, its lock was broken, thanks to my older brother ripping off the door handle one day — God knows why. My grandfather eventually installed a slide bolt lock; however, the slide could only be secured from the inside, leaving her unoccupied room vulnerable to invasion by her four younger siblings.
I was the younger sibling most likely to violate the privacy of her empty bedroom. Most evenings I would creep into that small, closet-sized room; the risk of getting caught was slight compared to the considerable enjoyment to be had listening to her record collection, which seemed to be what she spent the bulk of her fast food earnings on. Looking back, she had a remarkably eclectic taste in music for a Burger Chef employee in a small Southern Illinois town. Willie Nelson Sings Kristoferson, Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits, The Eagles’ Desperado, Pure Prairie League, Live: Taking the Stage; Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, John Prine’s Prime Prine, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Best of the New Riders of the Purple Sage (she was big on greatest hits collections). While my sister slaved away at Burger Chef, I would spend hours sprawled on her bare floor next to her record player discovering the songs of Bob Dylan and John Prine and Janis Joplin and wondering why the hell you never heard these songs on the radio.
After I had memorized the lyrics to pretty much every song on every album in my sister’s record collection, my attention drifted to the little red bookshelf beside her bed. Three rows of worn paperback books which in its way was very much like a greatest hits collection. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and A Farewell to Arms. Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. A sprinkling of Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent, Sweet Thursday, Cannery Row. Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. Lots of Anne Beattie and Irwin Shaw.
It seemed unlikely that these books could be as interesting or entertaining as the records, yet I began paging through them, one by one, dipping in and out of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, names that sounded vaguely familiar. (This must be what they mean about the importance of just having books lying around your home. Eventually, there is an excellent chance a teenager will get bored enough to pick one up.)
Reading Hemingway for the first time was like listening to really good music, Dylan-level music, which may have been why I snuck A Farewell to Arms out of my sister’s room and into the tiny bedroom I shared with my three brothers. I was well into Chapter 3 when I heard my sister wearily climbing the stairs, home from a long day of slinging burgers. I knocked timidly on her bedroom door. She opened her door a crack and peered suspiciously at me. “What do you want?”
I showed her the book. “Can I read this?”
She frowned at me. “What were you doing in my room?”
“I’m already on the third chapter.”
At length, she let out a long sigh and said, “Don’t lose it.”
She started to close her door, then hesitated. “And stay out of my room.”
Watching television one night, I heard a character on Lou Grant mention how a novel called The Catcher in the Rye had changed his life. My ears pricked up. That is exactly what I was looking for — something to change my stupid, boring life! If a book could do that I was all on board. (As long as it wasn’t like a thousand-page Russian book, anyway.) Imagine, no long, grueling 12-step programs, no adopting a new mystical Eastern religion — all I had to do was read a novel. I bounded upstairs to my sister’s room and plopped down before her bookshelf, scanning the rows. There on the bottom shelf it stood, the plain crimson cover with yellow text. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. This book was so special it didn’t need a fancy cover. Just the title would do.
Two hundred and thirty-four pages. That wasn’t terrible.
I grabbed the book, ran downstairs and found my sister in front of the television still watching Lou Grant. I thrust the book under her nose.
“Hey!” she said, swatting my hand away.
“Can I read this?”
My sister reluctantly peeled her eyes off the television screen and glanced at the book. Then she peered into my face. She seemed to be weighing something in her mind. Probably trying to decide if I was old enough for the novel’s vulgar language and frank discussions of sex. I was sixteen at the time; same age as Holden Caulfield, the book’s narrator. My sister, I must say, was something of a prude. I recall one Sunday night when we were lying around the house watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Suddenly there was a cartoon of a topless charwoman swinging through the skies and beating her pendulous breasts. My sister hopped up and snapped off the television. I’m sure she thought she was protecting us from brain-damaging smut.
“Were you in my room again?” she said.
“Come on, can I read it?”
Finally, she shrugged and said. “Don’t lose it.”
In hindsight, the reporter on the Lou Grant show had oversold Salinger’s book. There’s no denying it was a great novel. Over and over I got zapped by the shock of recognition; it turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought the world was full of phonies. But the novel didn’t exactly change my life. That’s a lot to ask of a novel, or of the novel’s author.
I don’t think any book has changed my life, but a few have changed the way I think about things. Memoirs, African American literature, histories have broadened my perspective in a way that decades of schooling never could. A book can be like a great teacher or a wise relative, and if you are like me and never had a great teacher or a wise relative, books can be a godsend.
Who’s to say which direction my life would have gone without my sister’s bookshelf? Who knows if I would have found my way to good books later in life. I suspect I was the kind of searching, dreamy youth that would have found books no matter what, but who really knows?
I have never thanked my sisters for bringing books into our home. I’m sure she would downplay it, saying something like, “Well I bought them for me, for my own enjoyment. I wasn’t thinking of anything grand like raising the literacy level of our entire family.”
Fair enough. But unlike our town librarian, she did, however grudgingly, grant me access to her little bookshelf, and for that, I am forever grateful.•