My mother always loved to read and had great taste in literature.
She told me that she read avidly as a child. She was a voracious reader.
She loved Little Women, a classic and a real girl’s book. She was very affected by the scene where the girl character Beth dies.
Another book that my mother particularly liked when she was growing up was The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a story about a shipwrecked family on an island that has to start life all over again. It was first published in German in 1812 and was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.
I believe that my mother also loved Heidi.
My mother’s all time favorite novel, she told me, was All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I have the book but have never gotten around to reading it myself. I did skim a copy which my mother had. There was a striking sex scene a couple of pages long that was not that explicit but which I found interesting at the time when I read it. In it, a woman goes upstairs in a house and initiates sex with a man. She says to him, ‘I came up.” He has trouble getting her dress off, unloosening the hooks.
There was good literature on my mother and father’s bookshelf in the living room, most of it my mother’s. There were also excellent art history books that my mother had.
One of my mother’s books was a paperback anthology entitled New World Writing, a sort of literary magazine in book form. It was a compilation of short pieces representing the best new literature from the previous calendar year. I used to think, what is that book about? It was of interest to my mother.
One book on my parents’ bookshelf was the Modern Library edition of War and Peace in the translation by Constance Garnett. My father told me that he had read it in its entirety during a summer which he and my mother spent at Lake George in the 1940’s.
There was another book I recall on the living room bookshelf, a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style. I read one of the stories, “A Swell-Looking Girl.” To put it succinctly, it shocked me (which does not mean that I thought it was necessarily a bad piece of fiction).
It’s a very simple story about a young man in a town somewhere in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.
The story seemed remarkable to me because of the thought of complete female nudity in the open. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.
Another book on my parents’ bookshelf was James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Modern Library edition. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This interested, intrigued me very much.
Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a conference in which one of the workshops was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, they simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:
…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.
My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order that impressed me. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.
There was a book on child development on their (Mom and Dad’s) bookshelf by an eminent child psychologist, I think it was Gesell.
I enjoyed skimming it. I liked to see what was expected of normal development in my age group. In the various chapters, there would be various lists, for example, common activities for a given age group.
When I was age 12, I looked at the appropriate chapter and noted an item: For boys that age, a common activity was playing baseball with oneself. I had been doing precisely that. At that age, I used to go into our front yard with a plastic bat and whiffle ball and hit the ball, tossing it out of my hand. I had made up a fantasy team with a fantasy lineup and I would announce — I can’t recall whether it was out loud or as a silent sort of interior monologue — the progress of the “game” as I took my swings. As noted, I had made up a fantasy team, but I think it included myself as one of the players. But I didn’t want to inflate my “role.” I pretended I was a shortstop with modest but decent power and a fair batting average.
In my late high school years, I read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts — which I found in my father’s room. I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.
The reason I kept the book in my room is that I liked Henry Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts. There were lots of them; they were quite explicit and erotic. They were well written, amusing, and fun. Soon I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I enjoyed the sex scenes on two levels, for their explicit erotic content and for the good, zesty writing.
Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but never finished it.
Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer Tropic of Capricorn. It is a basically autobiographical novel taking you from a point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller, who has become liberated, gives up the conventional life and leaves for Paris. The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum.
I kept reading Miller and spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college, neglecting my studies, and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I read the first two books of the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus and Plexus, and enjoyed them greatly.
Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But, as I have said, I liked them. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a more healthy appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism plus damned good writing.
I went on to read other works of Miller that did not have sexual content (including nonfiction) and got a real feeling for his range and scope (and an appreciation for his intellect, to an extent).
In the second semester of my senior year, I was shopping around to take some independent study English courses. (I needed some extra courses to graduate.) You had to get a professor to accept you and approve the course. I took Readings in D. H. Lawrence, a horrible course with a Professor Swiggart, and Readings in Henry Miller with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch.
Sacvan Berkovitch was a young, brilliant, up and coming, chain smoking American Studies professor who later migrated to Harvard. I had taken a survey course in American lit with him which I don’t recall much of. I do remember that we read Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. We were assigned The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. It was long and I couldn’t bring myself to read it.
Anyway, to get back to the Readings in Henry Miller course, two of my roommates at Brandeis decided that they wanted to take the course too. We had exactly one meeting with Professor Berkovitch, who was a nice guy, near the end of the semester, and that was the course. He could see from the discussion that we had some knowledge of Miller’s development and were seriously interested in him, and he said we could forgo writing a paper, which, per the norm, was required in independent study courses. He gave all three of us a grade of B.
I have a whole collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle, but find it hard now to get back into him. I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of his early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages.
Another erotic book that I eventually became acquainted with was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended a Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) conference in some nearby town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.
I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence, but I like several of his other novels a lot more than Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, that is, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, some of the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty book.”
Some comments about children’s and young adult literature, from my experience.
My exposure to such literature was through my mother. She had such good taste and read to me a lot. She chose splendid books for us. It was such a pleasure to be read to (in bed) by her because she enjoyed it so much herself, and, of course, my Mom was so warm and nurturing anyway.
How did she find the time to read to me? (It was always to me alone.)
One of our first books was Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. When The House at Pooh Corner, a sequel, came out, my mom was delighted and read that to me too. How I loved the nonsense rhymes of Pooh, the idiosyncracies of characters like Piglet and Eyore, and funny touches like the character who had a sign on his door, “knock if an answer is required, ring if an answer is not required.” My mother and I used to laugh out loud. I had such a warm and fuzzy feeling when she was reading to me.
We had several wonderful books compiled by the children’s book editor Olive Beaupré Miller. These included a multi volume set, My Book House, and the book Nursery Friends from France. I especially liked the latter book, which my mother took great pleasure in reading to us from. It had wonderful color illustrations. It was a compilation of songs, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales.
“Nursery Friends from France”
We had The Arabian Nights in a nice edition (which I still have). I particularly liked the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp.
In the second or third grade, I decided I wanted to read a real book. My parents had one on their bookshelf: The Flying Carpet by Richard Haliburton. It was a popular book by an aviator who flew around the world in the 1930’s. I “read” the whole book through, every page, but I did not (was incapable) understand it. But I was very proud to say that I had “read” a book.
There was a novel about gypsies that I read at that time. All throughout, I didn’t know what the word “gypsies” meant and couldn’t pronounce it.
The Book of Knowledge was an excellent encyclopedia for children. My father and mother bought a complete set from an encyclopedia salesman in around 1953. They were excited when the books arrived and I recall them opening the boxes. The encyclopedia had the usual articles and also literature. There was a story in it, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, that I loved. It made such an impression on me. It was so touching.
When I was around eight years old, I asked my father to explain baseball to me. He said, well, we have this new encyclopedia, that’s what we bought it for, so let’s do it the proper way. He turned to the article on baseball in The Book of Knowledge and began to explain the game to me. I recall that were diagrams showing the layout of the field and the positions. He might have explained the principle behind a force play, to give an example.
It was in the Agassiz School in Cambridge that I really began to read for myself, a lot. I loved being able to do it.
We were encouraged to read. In the front of the room, there was some kind of display on the top of the wall in colored paper which involved Indian headdresses and feathers. Kids’ names were on each headdress and you got another feather each time you completed a book. I was the leader. Most of the books I read, as I recall, were in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were popular biographies written especially for children that focused on the formative childhood years of the subjects. I loved those books. I recall reading the ones about Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis, Johnny Wanamaker, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, among others. I remember anecdotes about Lou Gehrig growing up in Yorkville in Manhattan and fighting a neighborhood bully and about Babe Ruth (called George as a youth) attending the Christian Brothers school where Brother Matthias encouraged him in baseball; I seem to recall that Ruth as a a schoolboy had the difficult task of playing catcher as a lefthander for a spell.
At a fairly early age, I read the classic Black Beauty (originally published in 1877) by Anna Sewell. This book made a very strong impression me. Not long ago, as an adult, I purchased it as an audiobook and “read” it again. It is very well written.
The story is told in the first person by the horse, Black Beauty, who is the narrator. The novel recounts the story of Black Beauty’s life as it is experienced under a succession of different owners, or “masters.” Some of the owners are cruel.
All I recall from reading the book as a child, the impression the book made on me then was that Black Beauty’s life was one of unremitting misery: an unending progression from one cruel master to another, with the course of the horse’s life leading to an inevitable decline. This characterization is true of a lot of the plot, but not all of it, as it turns out. When I first read the book, though I was greatly impressed by it, it seemed to me unbearably sad and gloomy. That it undeniably is, in places, in the sections where the horse is overworked and mistreated. But why did this impression predominate with me? I think because that view of Black Beauty’s life jibed with my view of own life as a sad one in which I was often mistreated. The scenes in the book of this nature were the ones that stuck in my mind.
Much to my surprise, I discovered, when I listened to the audiobook later, as an adult, that the novel actually ends happily, with Black Beauty in good circumstances, and that in other sections of the book, Black Beauty does have good masters (in contrast to many sections of the book in which the horse is cruelly mistreated).
I started visiting the Cambridge Public Library children’s room when I was very young. My mother and father were very liberal about giving us independence and let me walk there myself after a certain age. It was sort of a long walk. I loved being able to find and take out my own books.
At the library at around this time (fifth grade), I borrowed a science fiction book the title of which I do not remember. The story was about people who were involved in time travel. There were two main parts to the book. In the first, the main character or characters traveled back in time to the Stone Age. They encountered two hostile groups, the Cro-Magnons and the Neandertals. The time traveler(s) were befriended by the wise Cro-Magnons, who helped them to escape perils. In the second part of the book, the time traveler(s) went forward in time, in a rocket ship, overcoming things like aging with the aid of Einsteinian physics. I was totally engrossed in this young adult novel.
I also read a Tarzan book by Edgar Rice Burroughs (probably Tarzan and the City of Gold) — I think it was in the sixth grade. It involved a tribe of African warrior women who took men (or threatened to) as prisoners in their fortress. There was something titillating about this to me. Imagine being in the hands and under the power of an exotic woman!
There was a popular, respected series of history books for young readers, the Landmark Books. In the sixth grade, I read the one on Benjamin Franklin and loved it. Around that time, the animated Disney film Ben and Me, which I liked, was popular.
In the sixth grade, I read my first classic work of fiction, Oliver Twist. I can date this because I recall we were still living in Cambridge at the time. I don’t believe I finished it.
There is a key section in the novel where Oliver Twist, who had been forced to join the arch villain Fagin and his gang of boy pickpockets, escapes. He is taken in in a house where he is comfortable and protected. But then he looks out the window one day and there is Fagin peering in at him. Fagin has found out where Oliver is and gets him back. This scene really scared me.
Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, is a wonderful novel by James Otis. I read it when I was around 11 or 12. Toby runs away to join the circus. At the end of the book, his pet monkey, Mr. Stubbs, dies. It was such an incredibly sad scene. How it moved me!
Around this time (sixth grade), I had thoughts about becoming a forest ranger. I was a fan of Smokey the Bear. I think, in retrospect, that I may have been attracted to the career of forest ranger because I was a bit of a loner and the idea of a career with a lot of solitude appealed to me. Anyway, my parents gave me as a gift a young adult book about forest ranger careers.
Also at this time, when we were still living in Cambridge, my parents gave me as a gift The Fireside Book of Baseball, an anthology, and later they gave me The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. I still have these books and treasure them.
These two anthologies were full of great baseball writing, from journalism to fiction. There was work by outstanding sportswriters, like W. C. Heinz’s “The Strange Career of Pistol Pete,” about Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser whose brilliant career ended abruptly due to injuries. There was a spellbinding story by Zane Grey, “The Redheaded Outfield,” which is lyrical and poetic.
There were wonderful photographs. One, for example, showed second basemen Bobby Avila and Red Schoendienst completing double plays. Scheondienst is leaping over the runner at second base and leaning on the runner’s shoulders, draped over him, as he makes the throw to first. The photo made such an impression on me that I tried to reenact the play with a friend.
There were great editorial cartoons. One, for example, by Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram, was about the “phantom double play.” There was a depiction of an infielder pirouetting around second base like a ballet dancer while making the throw to first and neglecting to put his foot on the bag. The caption read, “The double play is a thing of real beauty. … Let’s not cheapen it with the phantom phonies.” See my post at
the phantom double play
I spent hours with the Fireside books and derived great pleasure from them.
When I was about 11, I started reading young adult sports fiction, mostly about baseball, though I do remember reading one about sandlot football players. The books would frequently have a moral. For example, I read one which concludes with the protagonist, in a key game, admitting to the umpire, who had called him safe, that he was really out. The protagonist gains in moral stature.
Around this time, I read a series of baseball books for young adults by Duane Decker, the Blue Sox series, about a fictional professional baseball team.
I also read the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley and enjoyed them very much.
When I was around 12, we had a dog, Missy, a shepherd collie who had puppies and who died suddenly and tragically, devastating me; I was so devoted to her.
There was an excellent series of factual, how to books for young adults published by Random House, the All-About Books. I read the one on dogs, avidly and studiously. The different sections (topics) would always have a subsection: if you have a dog in the city. I wondered what that would be like.
There was a lot of material, as would be expected, on how to care for your dog. There was also a lot of information about the different breeds. I became expert at identifying them.
Some additional items from my childhood and young adult reading.
“Little Black Sambo.” This is story which we took delight in that my Mom would read to us:
The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, and first published by Grant Richards [who, by the way, was an editor for Theodore Dreiser] in October 1899 as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The story was a children’s favorite for more than half a century though criticism began as early as 1932. The word sambo was deemed a racial slur in some countries and the illustrations considered reminiscent of “darky iconography.” Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since. (Wikipedia)
The Story of Little Black Sambo is a simple, illustrated children’s story about a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him. After Sambo saves himself by giving each tiger an article of his gaudy outfit, the tigers argue among themselves over which of them is the grandest. Eventually, the tigers chase each other around a tree so fast that they simply blur into butter, which Sambo takes home and uses on 169 pancakes that his mother, Black Mumbo, makes for him. (from a plot summary on another website)
I recall there was something about pancakes. My mother liked pancakes. She often made them for us.
Uncle Wiggily was a series of children’s books by Howard R. Garris. My mom introduced us to them. I loved them.
Uncle Wiggily is an elderly, avuncular rabbit who wears spectacles, and there are a lot of other animal characters. The books are lighthearted and fun. The color illustrations were superb.
Make Way for Ducklings is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It was my mother (you guessed it) who introduced us to the book. The story is about a duck family led by a mother duck that walks around Boston. They wind up at the Boston Common and ride on the swan boats. The plot is simple and charming; the black and white illustrations are superb (very realistic but simple and just right for children). The book won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for McCloskey’s illustrations.
The book was excellent in every respect, but what made it particularly enjoyable was that it was set in Boston and ends with the ducklings on the Boston Common. I used to love to go to the Boston Common and loved the swan boats.
Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. My mother purchased Babar and read it to me numerous times. I was absolutely charmed by it. The color illustrations were wonderful. My Mom loved Babar too, naturally.
Dr. Seuss. These books were a kind of late discovery in my elementary school years. My mother introduced me to them, I believe. The ones I liked were The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Scrambled Eggs Super! Many of his most famous classics hadn’t come out yet.
Some of my other favorite boyhood reading.
The short story “Alibi Ike” by Ring Lardner. It was in the Fireside Book of Baseball, which I have discussed above.
“Alibi Ike” is a gem of a story. I believe it is one of the best short stories ever written. It is told in the first person by an illiterate baseball player, one of Alibi Ike’s teammates. (Ring Lardner was a sports columnist.) The tone of the story is pitch perfect, and it has an irresistible narrative flow. It ends with the memorable words (spoken by Alibi Ike) “they claim it helps a cold.” (One has to read the story to know why this is a perfect ending.)
When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a short story that I modeled closely on “Alibi Ike,” writing in the same run-on narrative style. It was about a one armed pitcher. Our teacher let me read part of it to the class. They liked it.
Also in the anthology The Fireside Book of Baseball there was an excerpt from Mark Harris’s novel The Southpaw. It’s a baseball novel, written, as is “Alibi Ike,” in the first person. The narrator, Henry Wiggen, is a star rookie pitcher for the New York Mammoths, a team modeled on the Yankees. The narrative style, the prose, the rhythm and pacing are, again, infectious. Harris invents a whole team, and in an appendix there is a roster. There is a lot of humor. The first baseman on the fictional team, the Mammoths, is Sid Goldman (modeled on Hank Greenberg?), who is Jewish. The main character, Henry Wiggen, gets invited to the Goldman family home in the Bronx for dinner. He eats strange (for him) Jewish food such as what he calls “filter fish.”
There are two or three sequels that Harris wrote to The Southpaw. Recently, I tried to read one or two, but didn’t find them nearly as good.
A final comment about reading. It goes without saying how pleasurable and profitable it can be. How you can do it anytime, anywhere at little expense. (I think that books at current prices are still a great bargain.) How great it is to curl up with a book and how it is something you can always resort to when you are lonely or can’t sleep.
I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.
Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.
I am very appreciative that my parents established a sound foundation for enjoyment of reading. They communicated it naturally, like one might convey to one’s offspring an enthusiasm for sports. Reading was seldom a chore for me, and only then, infrequently, from assignments in school. Good literature was something I came to appreciate naturally, while at the same time feeling I could read whatever I liked. I was able to develop my own interests this way, like reading baseball books, for example. I developed highbrow tastes gradually, without being aware that I was doing so.
— Roger W. Smith,
Not that I’m a literary snob, mind you. I also read all of Harold Robbins’s trashy novels in junior high, much to the furrowed brow of my mother. One night, while I was reading “The Carpetbaggers” by flashlight under my covers, I overheard her say to my father: “Should we be letting her read those books?”
To my everlasting gratitude, he replied: “I don’t care what she reads as long as she’s reading.” Hurrah! Quite a concession from a man whose own father was an English professor who recited Beowulf (though surely not all 3,182 alliterative lines) in Old English on Christmas Eve. Mind you I wasn’t reading Robbins for school, nor did my extracurricular reading habits preclude my teacher-assigned readings. But we all drift toward what we like.
— “Don’t cancel Shakespeare,” By Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post, February 16, 2021