By: Jeanne Cameron
True: I am a recovering alcoholic.
Also true: When addicts and alcoholics give up our drug of choice, our compulsive natures often send us scurrying elsewhere, a sort of whack-a-mole phenomenon. I gave up drinking decades ago, but I compulsively feed another addiction: books. Five minutes ago, for instance, I ordered bell hooks Remembered Rapture, after rereading a pdf of one of its essays, “Writing Autobiography.” And yesterday, after listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Angel Kyodo Williams for the podcast On Being, I ordered two of Williams’ books: Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace and Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. My husband, now retired, has graciously taken over some of my home jobs, such as paying the bills. I love not paying bills, but there’s a downside. He now knows how much of our income goes to Amazon. Because I buy more books than I will ever have the time or inclination to read, the foyer in my house is currently filled with boxes of unread or partly-read titles which sparked no joy during a recent decluttering spurt. I can’t help myself. I am sick.
Until 6 months ago, I knew that just as I had inherited my alcoholism from my father my book addiction was my mother’s legacy. The bookcase in my bedroom today is the first piece of furniture my mother ever gave me. Bought over 50 years ago at an auction, she paid a friend to repair and refinish it. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe 5 or 6. It has followed me from one bedroom to the next for nearly six decades.
My mother read to me every night. Bread & Jam for Francis, the Curious George series, and Pippi Longstocking were my favorites. My mother read to herself every night too, although as a young child I didn’t know this because I was sleeping. By the time I did know this, it was unremarkable. It was just what we did before going to bed.
My mother kept an endless supply of paperbacks in her beauty shop; she and her customers would contribute books they’d read and borrow ones they hadn’t. As a teenager, I helped myself to this stash on the regular, although Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends is the only title I can remember right now.
My mother read political thrillers by authors like Ken Follett. She read multigenerational family sagas like The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. She read books about daring women who had lots of sex, by authors like Danielle Steele. She read books about women who survived great sadnesses, like Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. And she read various translations of the New Testament.
Anyhow, until recently, if someone had asked me who inspired my love for reading, I would have said my mother. Without pause. And then this summer, while purging my attic, I found a photo of my grandpa. One of those rare photos of a human that captures something essential about its subject. He’s sitting on a chaise lounge in a sun room on Sanibel Island. The photo documents a single moment in 1963, but the pipe resting between his lips and the portrait of absorbed reading are timeless.
And I knew suddenly and with certainty that it was my grandfather, and not my mother, who first inspired my love for reading. This knowledge washed over me, fully, completely. I remembered him reading to me, not in the rushed way my mother did at the end of a long work-day, but leisurely-like, at all times of the day, on the weekends. Whereas, she most often said “No, not tonight” to my daily requests for one more book or one more chapter, he was always game for more, even rereading the same story over again if that’s what I wanted. And I remembered that when he was not reading to me, or watching NBC’s The Saturday Night Movie with me, or playing Mr. Pinchy Crabb with me and my friend Joy, or viewing the coverage of the Vietnam War on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, or eating cornflakes and milk, he was reading his own books. Detective stories. Murder mysteries. Scary stuff. My grandfather eventually went blind and the robbery of his reading was his greatest loss. How could I have not remembered that?