People who don’t know me well would immediately describe me as outgoing, gregarious, animated, even loud. In other words, I appear to exhibit traits that are in direct contrast to the quiet, serious, studious demeanor that we generally ascribe to people we consider “bookish.” But in truth, I am bookish, and have been my whole life, ever since I learned to read under my Mother’s tutelage well before I ever started school. (She was “bookish” too, you see, but she was the quiet type.)
Books are, and have been, the basic source material for my life: they introduced me to the people and places of the world, and taught me how to navigate them, long before I ever traveled; they revealed human nature in all its complicated relationships and helped me recognize the good, the bad, and the evil among us; they led me through the lessons of history and prompted me to form my own values and aspirations for the future.; and, of course, they gave me the educational tools of language, science, mathematics, and philosophy that are needed to lead a knowledgeable, independent life. In short, books have shaped my view of the world by providing foundational templates against which to evaluate personal experience. “Book learning,” as my grandmother used to call it, has made me who I am and I am all the richer for it. If that makes me “bookish” or elitist, then so be it; I make no apologies.
One of my most vivid memories from early childhood (as a really little girl) when my Father was still alive was going with him to the Plaza Bookstore down on Main Street. It was the only bookstore in our town, though back then it was known as Plaza Book and Hobby because, well … how many books could you possibly sell to stay in business in a small town. Anyway, the proprietor was named Billy (Uncle Billy to me). He was an erudite, somewhat eccentric bachelor who had grown up and gone to school with my Mother and had “known her forever” as they say. Once she met and married my Father, who had been in the Air Force, and they returned to Victoria to live, Billy quickly became a good friend of his, as well. (My Father was “bookish” too, but he was an outgoing joker type.)
Behind its Tudor-inspired, Old Curiosity Shop facade, Plaza Book and Hobby was a very masculine place. Inside, the store was dark and cool, with high ceilings, long counters along the side walls, and endless bookcases arranged in between in rows. A bell rang whenever a customer walked in, probably because Billy was usually the only one working there. In addition to rows and rows of books, there was a tobacco/cigar shop toward the back with bar stools and glass cases. Along another wall was the “hobby” section, which consisted of a very high counter with an array of modeling kits clearly intended for adults, mostly of classic cars and airplanes. My Father had been a pilot during the War and then became a commercial airline pilot. Flying was his absolute passion and, when he wasn’t reading, he built models of historic aircraft.
Between the books and the models, Daddy and I would spend hours in that store when he was home. I don’t remember a children’s reading section there — I don’t remember ever seeing any children, for that matter, or many women either — but Uncle Billy always had little Golden story books or crafty make-it books on hand for me. It didn’t matter; I was just happy to be in that quiet, “bookish” place where I was free to roam around and investigate without supervision. I felt safe and trusted in a grown-up environment, a feeling I have carried with me into every library and bookstore I have ever entered since.
After my Father had died and Plaza Book and Hobby had become the Plaza Bookstore selling only books, I continued to spend time in that quiet, “bookish” place as a youngster and then teenager, then as a college student, and then as a married woman visiting back home. Billy was still a close family friend and now I, too, had “known him forever.” I enjoyed reminiscing with him about those early days with Daddy, and then I would browse the shelves, straighten the titles, and talk about new releases and the book business. As time went on, I became a working, publishing writer and book author myself, and that made Uncle Billy very happy. He proudly displayed my first book in that Tudor-style front window.
As you get older, you come to see the patterns in your life and begin to acknowledge the origins of various personal talents and attitudes. Yes, some traits are inherited from parents and ancestors, but then so many more are developed and refined through experience, both direct and indirect. To quote an often-used title for school programs, “Reading is fundamental.” There is no safer, greater way to grow and learn than through the vicarious experience offered between the covers of a book.
“If you can read, you can do anything,” I used to tell my students when I taught, “and you can find out almost anything about anything if you know where to look.” Woe is the society that bans books under the guise of protecting the young and restricts the freedom of anyone at any age to roam among library shelves. It won’t be a free society for long, and it certainly won’t be a civilized one.
Note: The photo above is of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and still in business today. It is known as the home of the Beat poets and has been the site of many protests, literary and otherwise, by loud “bookish” people.