I have been “meme’d” to write 15 fun facts about books! So here goes! (and thanks to Steve and Nick). I don’t remember how I learned to read: I do remember having the impression of looking into my mother’s missal on Sunday mornings and seeing lots of dits and dots and not knowing what they were, and then a few weeks later on looking into the same missal (always during Mass) and realizing that what was on the page was what was being spoken out loud. In fact, because I was just one year behind my older brother in school, I think I “osmosed” his first grade readers because we did them together, on the den sofa, on Bonnywood Lane, in Dallas, back in the Dark Ages. In any event it got me no glory when I entered First Grade myself the year after: the good nun who taught me, suspicious that a first-grader could read on the first day of class, relegated me to the back of the class, where I talked my way through the year, was constantly being reprimanded for it, and ended up with only a C in reading at the end.
2. I adore encyclopedias, and especially the word itself. When I was still living with my parents and older brother on June Drive (really back in the Dark Ages), we got a television set (que diable? je pensais que c’était sur des bouquins??!!?? Attendez un peu, mes chéris) and my brother and I were allowed to watch Disney (uh, that’s all there was at that time – the Mickey Mouse Club). I remember this one bit where Jimminy Cricket used to sing, before a one-minute “fun facts about knowledge and science” thingy (actually I have NO recollection of what came after the song), “E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A”…. So I sang along with him. I was not yet 5 years old; in fact I was probably more like 3 or 4. I did not know how to read yet, but I could spell “encyclopedia”. Well, once again this did not get me any glory. In 2nd grade we had a spelling bee one rainy afternoon, and, you guessed it, there I was, the last one left standing, and I remember seeing the two teachers scrutinizing me, and the Jimminy Cricket refrain popped into my head and I said to myself, “Ask me ‘encyclopedia!’ “, and (I am NOT making this up), it was as if they had searched in their heads for the worst word they could find so that I would finally not be able to spell something… and out came the magic word! I swear I had to try not to sing the ditty with the Jimminy Cricket voice (that would have given away my secret). I will not describe the horror on their faces when I correctly spelled this word. Anyway, I love to read encyclopedias. I have always been random and disorganized about how I read them, sort of like taking the volume “B” and just reading it like a novel. Since I have worked in UN agencies I have had to learn to respell the dang thing: encyclopaedia. Don’t ask about the “a”.
3. Dictionaries! In particular, I like to read the etymologies. Can’t get enough of ’em. I now own English and French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Russian dictionaries. They make good doorstops, too.
4. I read almost all of the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. I also had a great fondness for my grade-school English books, entitled Voyages in English. I still have grades 3, 4 and 5. But my favorite childhood books were The Black Stallion; Lad, a Dog; and Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind.
5. Very early on I developed a craving for library books. It was the smell that I liked more than anything… When they said that I had my nose in a book…. The first library I ever visited was the Dallas Public Library, Marsalis Branch. The first books I checked out were books of fairy tales, by color: The Red Book of Fairy Tales, The Blue etc. The actual building has since been laid waste. I also worked at the Dallas Public Library (a different branch, Hampton-Illinois, which has since burned down) after school from age 16 to 18. It was great to get my hands on all the books for term papers before anybody else could… (I had no idea I was so rapacious!). The other thing about the Dallas library is that my older brother and I went to a poetry writing workshop at the downtown branch (for all I know it is still standing) for a while, I don’t remember when exactly. Siddie Lee Johnson was the person who taught us to write poetry.
6. I love the idea that, with a computer, I can actually MAKE a book. Lay the thing out, pull in text and photos, arrange it all and change things around. Virtual books. This is somehow linked to a deep love for printing, and for typography (REAL typography!). I used to love to go to some of the places where my father worked: printing companies, in the Riverbottom in Dallas. It was the smell of the ink that I liked, and seeing the huge presses going around. I know, I know, my HP printer is ersatz in comparison. Doesn’t matter…
7. I went through a summer of Dickens addiction when I was 13. Couldn’t get enough of it. Read about 6 novels per month. Then I got over it. The same thing happened with Jane Austen and Henry James, many years later. But I still adore Henry James, and I think that The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl are among the best novels in the English language.
8. I wrote a doctoral dissertation about John Barth, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, which is what opened up my eyes to “colonial literature”… and the entire founding myth of America. I think that Letters is a work of genius… but don’t look for a straight story line. (A little coda here: imagine my utter astonishment to learn in the blogosphere from Steve that he did a high-school senior thesis on Barth!!! First I’d heard…)
9. For years I kept beginning to write a fiction that was entitled “The Bibliophile”. It was about a man who was so obsessively neurotic about reading books that he kept about 15 books running at a time – they were open in the kitchen, the bathroom (in fact, he had to put boards over the tub to keep books open so he could read them at a second’s notice), on the stairs, in the garage, all over the house, and there were crumbs in the gutter, and coffee circles where he’d put down his mug, and he propped them open with rulers and clips of all kinds, and had those little stands like you can still get at the BHV in Paris to hold your book at a convenient angle. I don’t know how this story ended. Badly, I presume.
10. My ten favorites (these are unstable molecules and are apt to change). Le Rivage des Syrtes, by Julien Gracq. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Silmarillion. Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass (that counts as 1!). Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. The Thurber Carnival, by James Thurber. Les Silences du Colonel Bramble. All of Astérix. A la recherche du temps perdu. C.S. Lewis, the space trilogy (also counts as only one!).
11. In 11th grade, I discovered a tiny book in the Bishop Dunne High School library, entitled Flatland, by Edwin Abbott. It changed the way I looked at reality. (BTW: Flatterland, which exists, was a bit disappointing.)
12. When I was a sophomore in high school I won 2nd prize in a writing contest sponsored by the Dallas Public Library, for a book report on Orwell’s Animal Farm. I also mention in passing that my favorite toy when I was really small was a farm set… just a coincidence.
13. (my, my, you mean there are still blanks to fill in?) I too read about 4 books at a time, with absolutely no order in the chaos. Right now there is something by Jung, Proust, The Glass Castle, and Like Water for Chocolate (and see the movie too!).
14. In addition to the favorites, I add books on photography, cookbooks (especially in foreign languages when I can’t figure out the ingredients), gardening guides, plant catalogues, the old Sears mail-order catalogues, and maps and atlases.
15. (whew!) I ADORE books that make me just scream with laughter. In no order: comics by Gotlib, a couple of books by Bernadette de Castelbajac, including Les Mots les plus droles de l’Histoire, most French BDs, books with funny Japanese gadgets, The Meaning of Liff, and books on mis-translation.That’s all, folks!!
© 2006, J.Crews