When I am asked to describe myself in a minimum number of words, I usually say, “boundless curiosity.” This is what has propelled me around the world, participating in foreign cultures (with varying degrees of success), learning to ask the questions that take me further in the direction of the essence of human nature. There are so many mysteries and so little time!
I lay the blame for this questing spirit at the door of the Wilmette and Ephraim Public Libraries. The librarians (Miss Siniff, et al., and Miss Vera Sauer, respectively) were gatekeepers to numberless worlds. Thanks to them, both Newbery and Caldecott Award Winners are still favorites. In my family, reading is something one shares with others. Reading aloud — or being read to — is one of the supreme pleasures of life. My mother befriended these marvelous women (some of whom even came to my wedding), and thanks to them, she brought home magical and informative stories that opened up some of the most profound (or fun) secrets of the universe for me.
My summers were spent in a hammock in Wilmette, on my cot or on a rock in my “secret cave” in Wisconsin, or any other place I could find where a book could accompany me. I have spent, I now realize, a large amount of my life in solitude, but I’ve had very few moments of loneliness. From Little Women and the Little House series, to Alan Watts’ This Is It! (my introduction to Zen in the 1950s), I have met more fascinating people through books than I ever could have in “real” life.
Recently, I was riding the subway and there was a man sitting next to me reading a real, hardbound book. I found myself dying for a chance to feel the richness of the paper and enjoy the elegance of the font the designer had chosen. The smell of the ink and paper is also something I miss. My iPad, convenient as it is, does not bring me the same joy, although it brings me a multitude of free books from the NYC Public Library.
I have had to get rid of so many “old friends,” as there is only so much one can carry through life. But I love all of my remaining books and read and reread them as often as I can. My grandparents handed down their favorites to my (much-older) brother, and he handed down them down — along with his own favorites — to me. Yet no one seems to want my antique books, some of which go back almost 150 years! My brother introduced me to Alice Through the Looking Glass when he was toilet-training me, as well as the Pooh books, the Oz books, and many others. By the time I was four, he had taught me to read (although the script in the Babar books defeated me for a few more years). Before I could read, I memorized my favorites, and sat on the edge of the sandbox pretending to read to my overawed friends (I’d even memorized when to turn the pages!)
Yet reading made me want to travel; and travel opened up new languages and new literature. Sadly, I will probably never fully explore Latin America, nor cross India, Africa or China in my lifetime. But the half of the world I’ve seen has provided me with so much to wonder about! I’m quite sure I would never have traversed Europe, nor enjoyed my three years in Syria and Turkey, without having had books (and art and music) to lure me to them.
Thanks, Mom! What a gift you gave me!