by Carol A. Westbrook
I gave a signed copy of my new book about beer, “To Your Health!” to a couple of favorite bartenders and a bar owner, all of whom had been featured in a story or two in this book about beer. A few weeks later I asked
each one how he enjoyed the book. And each admitted he hadn't yet opened the book, but assured me he put it in the bathroom. After my initial shock, I recognized that I was being paid the highest compliment. For a non-reader, the bathroom is the place of honor for reading material. A stack of books or magazines in the bathroom means, “this is valuable to me, and I am going to read it some day.”
What a different world than the one in which I live! In my world, books hold a place of honor and, more importantly, books are read. I love books. When I was a kid, the Tooth Fairy left us books. My first Tooth Fairy book was “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” by Crockett Johnson, which today remains my favorite children's book. I loved getting books from the Tooth Fairy, and treasured every one.
Because we were a Catholic family of four children, all of whom attended parochial school, we didn't have much money to spare, but books were always there. My father got many of these books for free, since they were demos at his place of work–he did PR for the Chicago Public Schools. We were fortunate to have a steady supply of children’s' books long after we had our permanent teeth.
Reading was a joyful activity in our family. We children taught each other to read long before we started first grade (there was no kindergarten at St. Hyacinth's School). I remember showing my younger brother how to sound out the letters in words; I was seven and he was three. Family vacations were always preceded by a trip to the library, to stock up on a dozen or so books to take along as we lounged at the lake or drove on our interminable car trips.
I was the bookworm of the family. In fourth grade I breezed through the classics on our classroom bookshelves–“Black Beauty,” “Oliver Twist”, and “Tom Sawyer.” I doubt these books would be considered suitable for a 10 year old today (even if they could read them), featuring abuse of both animals and children.
My true passion, though, was science fiction. My favorites were “Elevator to the Moon,” by Stanley Widney, and “Have Space Suit, Will Travel,” by Robert Heinlein, and “Space Cat,” by Ruthven Todd. By age 12, I had read all the young adult science fiction in our local library, so I was allowed to take the “el” train downtown by myself to the main Chicago library. There I discovered a world of books.
In high school I discovered science, and at the same time I discovered the John Crerar Library, a technical library that was on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, an hour on the “el.” I was impressed by the modern campus, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and dedicated to the study of science. At the Crerar Library I would spend hours in the stacks, finding books and articles for my current science fair project. Merely having those books around me made me feel like a true scientist.
In high school also I took a course in journalism. I learned the joys of writing a concise sentence, and the precision and accuracy of the English language. I decided I would have to learn touch-typing. I had to take the class in the summer, in public school, since the nuns at our high school would not allow the “college track” girls to register for “secretary track” classes. Remember, this was 1966. For a nice Catholic girl, attending public school was an education in itself. And learning to type gave me a voice. I begged my parents to buy me an electric typewriter and they obliged. It got me though college and then med school. I have it to this day, though it has been supplanted by my laptop.
The years passed, and I had three children of my own. I started reading to them when they were too young to understand all the big words; we read together at bedtime, going through C.S. Lewis' “Narnia” books, Madeline l'Engles' series, “A Wrinkle in Time,” T.H.White's “The Once and Future King,” numerous Robert Heinlein stories…too many others to remember. We read at bedtime, we read after dinner, we had books on tape for long car trips. All of my children were bookworms, too.
My children taught each other to read, just as I did with my siblings. My oldest son was an early reader. He attended the University of Chicago Lab School, which was later attended by the Obama girls. In nursery school he read books to his classmates, and he taught his younger sister to read; both eventually went on to study science and medicine. My second son was a late reader, but he had us all conned because he would memorize every book that was read to him, and “read” it back to us. As he grew older and became an actor, he retained this remarkable ability to memorize lines for plays. Ironically, in spite of being a late reader, he majored in English. The kids and I continue to read and recommend books to each other, and we are especially on the lookout for science fiction.
When I moved out of our old house in Chicago to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found the box containing the children's books, our old friends that we read aloud to each other. When I opened it I was shocked–all that was left were small scraps of paper, and insect larvae. The books had been devoured by bookworms. Yes, there really ARE bookworms, and they do eat paper. I cried.
Cambridge was wonderful. There were so many bookstores I felt I was in paradise! Sadly, many of the bookstores closed, one by one, and I have since moved out of Cambridge. I'm writing books and blogs of my own now. But I still love to read for pleasure. Yes, I have my Nook and my Kindle and my iPhone Kindle Reader app. But I still prefer books. I like the feeling of the book in my hand, the weight of the paper. I like to read the flyleaf and the front pages, and the comments and bios on the back cover. When I read, I feel that I am inside the book, physically, with the story, and back on vacation as a child.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably a reader, too. No doubt you have stories like mine–I'd love to hear them! I am writing this to remind you to keep books in your life, and give them to your children and grandchildren. Make them bookworms. Buy books and keep bookstores open. And don't just keep the books in the bathroom. Read them!
Some day I will have grandchildren of my own, and I will read to them. For now, I only have grand dogs and grand kittens, and they don't enjoy books. My grandkids will get books from their grandmother, and I will read to them, perhaps on Skype. The first book will be, “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”