Whenever I read applications for poetry-related things–fellowships, residencies, academic programs–there are personal statements that begin by invoking the childhood roots of the writer’s connection to books, literature, reading or writing, e.g., “Ever since I learned to read at age three…” or “I have loved books my entire life.” While these are rarely the most persuasive personal statements, they always remind me that we all have personal myths around our obsessions, even if some of us are too sophisticated to share them. Either we have loved books our entire lives, which is one kind of myth, or we began loving them at a particular moment, which is another–perhaps a conversion story; meeting Harry Potter on the road to Damascus, if you will.
With trivia people, it’s usually that we have always been collectors and retainers of information. Some of us have truly astounding capabilities with regard to learning, storage, and retrieval, but since most kids are interested in collecting something–I liked owls and bottlecaps–and kids who don’t have too much difficulty with reading often find themselves collecting large amounts of facts and information as well (these weren’t really around when I was young, but they’re everywhere now), a lot of us just carry on with the childhood habit of collecting and not discarding what we learn. My husband still has a lot of 1970s-era dinosaur lore (and has kept up with some advances in paleontology) and can identify a startling number of shark species.
I didn’t have the focused obsessions that he and lots of other kids had, though. I wasn’t necessarily in search of particular prey; I was more of a reading scavenger. Books weren’t scarce in my world, but what seems important as I look back is that they came to me in a lot of different ways. I had books of my own, books in my elementary classroom libraries and school library, but I also had my parents’ bookshelves and their coffee-table books and the books at my aunt’s apartment and at my grandmother’s house. My mother ran an antique shop for a few years of my childhood and bought books in auction lots; I also went with her to other antique shops and browsed the book sections, which were always more interesting to me than furniture or glass.
When you read this way as a child, you come across all sorts of information and have no way of knowing that most of what you read is nearly completely irrelevant to your life. I still can’t tell, to be honest. The problem is that I don’t retain as much as I used to–and, in my adult life, with so much of my reading on the Internet, I can’t always remember where or in what context I learned some half-remembered thing. It was different when books were so much more closely tied to specific places and even times for me. I remember reading The Peterkin Papers in the wonderful loft in my elementary school library and The Book of Lists at my aunt’s house in Atlanta.
Reading books from those auction lots, in particular, gave me a passing acquaintance with names that were unfamiliar to other children and even adults. There always seemed to be one of Bennett Cerf’s compilations of funny stories, hardcover books featuring celebrities of other generations, like the wits of the Algonquin Round Table. (I probably would have found Dorothy Parker on my own, but it was definitely from those auction boxes that I also became a Robert Benchley fan.) I think it was from one of Cerf’s books that I learned some quip that I parroted to my parents, attributing it to G.K. Chesterton, a name that sounded to them as if I had made it up.