1. I don’t remember the first book I ever read on my own. I remember the first one I ever loved (enough to remember it anyway): Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I can’t even imagine how sick of that one my grandmother must have gotten. I do always remember loving books, so much that I declared I was going to be a writer before I could even write. I’d sit for hours and scrawl cursive-like symbols in one of those big notebooks with the thick gray paper and dotted lines; when my mom got home I’d make her look through them and point out any words I’d inadvertently managed to write. (Not very many.)
2. I also remember the first "books" I ever tried to write, on my mother’s Royal typewriter (which is now in our office, but retired). In fact, we’re out at my parents’ place right now and sitting beside me is a hard green plastic portable file with three women’s heads drawn in marker on top–they have curly red hair and are smiling. The front reads in the same marker: "Gwenda’s Story File: Keep Out! PRIVATE! Gwenda Bond." Just in case the front was affected by bombing or something, I wrote the same thing on the back. Inside are a bunch of Sweet Valley High books (how the hell did those get in there?!) and a set of alphabetized folders. Anyway, the first "book" in here is 5 pages long and typed on ruled notebook paper and it’s called: "The Special Horse." No doubt a pastiche of all the horse fiction I was reading at the time, it features a girl who loves horses, however, in a cruel twist of fate, her father sometimes sells horses to glue factories or (dum, dum, dum) butcher shops! (Why I thought butcher shops here commonly sold horse meat is another story.) It’s even corrected with red ink. The second story I started was actually science fiction and I have it here before me: "Life in the Year 2050." I’ll give you a couple of sentences of this gem: "The bubble colonies were spaced evenly on Earth. No more could be built because no one could live long enough to construct them." Oh, okay, one more, because it’s just too funny: "Sooner or later there would be a population problem, for she saw it coming, even before the scientists, the experts. An eleven-year-old knew that hard times were on the way." Okay, okay, one more (from the section titled TWELVE YEARS LATER): "Today the Congress was having a meeting to figure out what to do about the problem. She feared that violence would be resorted to in the end."
3. My parents were both principals by the time I was in third grade. (My mom was the high school principal, my dad the elementary school’s.) I was around after school a huge amount of time and I also tended to wander fairly freely during the day. Librarians loved me. The result was that I ended up helping build the collection at both the grade and high schools. It also meant that I could get the libraries to order whatever books I wanted, which is how I got to read Weetzie Bat, among other things.
4. Every Sunday growing up, after church our family would drive about 45 minutes away for a late lunch at a cafeteria-style restaurant in Corbin. I loved this, because there was both a WaldenBooks clone and an ice cream shop next to the cafeteria. (Plus, the cafeteria itself had this exhausted woman with amazingly coiffed hair and bright red lipstick, who always stood next to a big fish tank at the front of the room. I was fascinated by her.) I was allowed to buy one book every week, unless it was my Grandpa Summers’ turn to go with me and then I could usually talk him into two. They didn’t have an insanely great selection, which ended up in my reading a ton of classics when I was probably too young to understand them.
5. Speaking of which, I made a decision in fifth grade to read all the classics for three reasons: one) So I could catch allusions in other books, two) So I’d be able to answer more questions right at the quiz bowl, and three) So I’d be able to read whatever I wanted when I got older. This pretty much worked out as planned. I read all Shakespeare’s plays between eleven and thirteen (yes, I reread most of them later!). I would get the high school reading lists and read all the books on them, which did mean that I could sub in Salman Rushdie and Eduardo Galeano when I got to high school and nobody minded.
6. I had this friend named Alan on the high school academic team. He was a big guy, tall and stocky, and he had this massive black leather trenchcoat. We decided that when playing schools we really hated, we’d liberate underused books from their libraries. It was a rescue, people (yes, I know this was wrong). The meets were always in the library and there was always enough milling around time we could use to stuff his trench full of books, zip it up and walk them out to the bus. Some of these I integrated into the collection at our own library; some I kept for myself.
7. I wasn’t beloved by all librarians. The grade school academic team checked out a bunch of books about HIV/AIDS from the city (nee village) library on my account in preparation for a Problem Solving Competition. Of course, our school was full of the "bad kids" and these bad kids never returned the books to the library. For years, I would receive xeroxed photocopies of the check-out records for those books, along with ever-accumulating fee receipts. I was afraid to walk past the library. In fact, I was afraid of real world libraries in general until a few years ago, as if they shared intel on bad book borrowers.
8. My Granny Bond, whose house I spent most of my pre-school time at, had a framed print of Fragonard’s "A Young Girl Reading." For some reason, I inserted the idea she was on a train (even though that is clearly not the case). The print was hung in a room we weren’t supposed to play in, because it housed her cases full of antique glassware. I could get away with laying on the floor and staring up at the painting though. I liked to change what she was reading from day to day. I don’t know why this painting appealed to my granny, probably the muted color pallette meshed with the room–she herself wasn’t much of a reader, having only made it through eighth grade (but she was an excellent storyteller).
9. The Narnia books, for all their flaws, along with Madeleine L’Engle’s, were the first books that made me start wandering our yard, looking for the secret doorway to other worlds, the fairy creature I might step on and, as a result, land in the middle of some adventure. But yeah, didn’t we all do that?
10. When I was a freshman in high school Penguin and a couple of other publishers decided to give away all their remaindered books to poor children in Appalachia. They came to the high school in giant boxes. They filled half the basketball court. Sure, they all had their covers snipped and the words "Not for Resale" on them, but as principal’s daughter, I got first dibs. They came at an odd time, when school wasn’t actually in session. I brought home several hundred (don’t worry, there were plenty of dupes), resulting in access to a large number of books I would NEVER have even known existed. I read recent Japanese plays and poetry. I read classic religious texts from all over the world. Books about politics. Stephen Dobyns’ poetry about the body. Hundreds of books. This is still one of the best presents the universe ever gave me. Hurrah for New York publishers’ view of disadvantaged hill people!
11. I routinely got in trouble during my cheerleading years for saying I didn’t feel well and had to sit out then reading books on the bleachers during the game. (Midnight’s Children was the real breaking point.)
12. I couldn’t believe the first bookstore I went to that wasn’t a WaldenBooks. It was Joseph-Beth, the original store in Lexington, in its original location. I refused to leave for hours. (Later I would mock Kato Kaelin at a signing in the same store, but that’s another story for another time.)
13. According to the cautions I’ve received many times, I’m probably blind by now and have also missed most of the world that passes by outside a car.
14. Books are pretty. Just the sight of one can make me feel better. Whenever great tragedy has struck, I’ve always go straight to the shelves, looking for the right book to take me away from it and help me make sense of it. It never works, of course, but it never hurts either.
15. I can’t believe how many great books there still are out there for me to read. The whole writer-reader continuum is magic. Really, it is.
Whew, that was long. Got tired there at the end.