My memories from childhood are spotty at best. Certain events stand out and certain milieu broad brush memories exist, but I don’t have one of those memories, that some do, where every event and childhood friend is remembered.
One thing I remember is as you entered the house, which was extremely cluttered, some might say messy, the first thing you saw was the “library.” The library was a half wall height bookshelf that delineated a section of the living room as a separate room. It was about nine feet by nine feet, so not tiny, but not huge. On the other side of the bookshelf, which was a “real” bookshelf, were a series of white bricks stacked with wood boards every so many inches. The boards were painted black, to contrast with the bricks. My mother, who raised me and my sister as a single parent, couldn’t afford any more bookshelves from the store, but these looked quite nice. Thus, three of the four walls were covered with books.
Given her income and later the lack of any income, the quantity of books was pretty amazing. Thus, I grew up thinking that everyone had books. Everyone read. All the time. It wasn’t until well into my teens that I figured out this wasn’t really true. I suppose this was partially because I hung out with friends that read also. Books mattered. Books were a window into other worlds. Books were how you learned. Books were entertainment. Books were something you treasured. Writing and books were how you rebelled.
A few years ago my mother died, essentially of complications from severe primary Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune “disease” that little is known about. I will probably blog a bit on that as I work on a book preliminarily entitled “Men Care Too™.” As I went through some of her boxes for the second time (the first was when I moved her from Minneapolis to Seattle to live with us), I found some of her scraps from refugee camps when her side of the family fled from Czechoslovakia in the 1948 coup d’état.
These scraps included old pamphlets from Italy (where they spent most of their two years trying to get into the United States). In the margins of these pamphlets was writing. My grandmother was a writer. Paper was so scarce that they would use any scrap to write on—in tiny cramped letters as space was a premium. Also were “books” of poetry and stories that others in the camps would “publish.” These were typewritten. It was almost reverting to pre-printing press, but the need to share, to write, to read, was so powerful that these efforts flourished—as much as they could—in the camps.
Perhaps it is like any commodity, we only really miss it when it is gone, but I think books are more than a commodity. They matter in a way that is different from, say, wanting a nice piece of clothing. To these people in the refugee camps, including my own teenage future mother, it was as precious as food.
When many financially unsuccessful authors write another book, we are asked why? The answer invariably boils down to one answer. I have to. As I blog about writing, publishing, and general musings, the same question – response applies. I have to. Books Still Matter.