It was my mother’s social ambition that taught me to love books.
My mother–the eldest of her siblings–had a hard-scrabble childhood. She experienced family disruption at an early age, knew it well in fact, as her mother (my grandmother) was widowed and abandoned by husbands and inamorati at a fearsome rate. Moving from city to city, home to home, dogged by the turmoil of constant change, their family suffered one “fresh start” after another (and for “fresh start” read “begin again, from nothing.”)
Smart, tall, and attractive, my mother wanted a better life than the one from which she came. She worked hard to better herself through schooling and difficult choices, and did not apologize when it meant moving on. Some–her siblings included–thought her haughty and snobbish. In my own time, I’ve been described as haughty, arrogant, and imperious, so maybe I get that from her.
America in the ’50s was a place of appearances, where doing well-meant looking good, and my mother worked this to our family’s advantage. She made her own clothes from designer patterns. She read about opera and cajoled my father into attending performances. It wasn’t for show, either–she loved wearing Chanel suits, and enjoyed especially the light opera of Gilbert & Sullivan–but still, the show was important as one ascended to higher social circles.
One thing that was mostly for show, however, was my mother’s subscription to the Heritage Press book club.
Between 1937 and 1982, Heritage Press published higher-end, limited-edition reprints of classic literature. Each edition was hardbound, cloth-covered, came in a box-sleeve, and was printed on quality paper that had been gilded, speckled, or even deckle-edged. A small newsletter (Sandglass) came with each volume, providing the history of the work, the author, the illustrator, and gave specifics about the edition, like details about fonts, kerning, layout, the cloth and paper, the binding, and the decorations used.
These box-sleeved volumes lined our shelves. The books were large and heavy, smelled of linen paper and ink, and instinctively I regarded them as objects deserving extreme care and reverence. After my mother died, they acquired a deeper emotional aspect. With her death, the subscription was canceled, the collection stopped growing and the books languished, shoulder-to-spine along the dark shelves of our étagère, their gilt-lettered titles dim with dust. They became, to me, her last presence in the house, evidence that she had, indeed, once resided among us, and I cherished them.
On dark days when the house was quiet, I would go into the living room and take one down. I listened to the silken slip as the book came out of the sleeve. My small hands felt the cloth bindings, rough linen on this one, smooth cotton on the next, each unique. The pages–thick and crisp–snapped against my fingertips, creaked and crackled as I opened the book, often for the first time ever. I read the bi-fold Sandglass, studied the different fonts like Baskerville and Helvetica–I was probably the only six-year old in the ’60s who knew what a font was–and compared the layout description to what I found in the books.
Oh, and what I found in those books.
It was in the Heritage Press parallel-language edition of The Odyssey that I first encountered Greek (and poetry, for that matter!) It was in their edition of The Three Musketeers that I learned about variable sentence length (and why Dumas used short, choppy dialogue). I only read a few of them, though I started many. Youth and the call of the hills where I played with schoolmates were not conducive to reading classic literature.
Half a century on, my father still has most of those volumes on his shelves; they and he have survived a second wife and the raising of four children. I did manage to abscond with the matching pair of Dumas’ works, however, and they rest now at my elbow, their age-worn sleeves battered with the moves and cities of my own early adulthood. In my mind, they’re still my mother’s books, purchased as a way of improving her mind and her life, but in building her collection, my mother built something that lasted far beyond her own short span of time, instilling–in me, at least–a love of books, of words, and of knowledge.
And of the feel of the thing. Nothing beats the feel of a well-made book.