The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor is still, five decades after its publication, one of the best-known books about American Jewish children. Published in 1951 and describing the lives of five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century, the books—with their descriptions of noisy streets, religious ritual, tasty food, friendly neighbors, and warm, loving home life—made middle-class girls all over suburbia wish they had grown up poor in the tenements of New York City. Girls who read the books don’t forget the sisters’ escapades: Charlotte and Gertie sneaking “chocolate babies” and crackers into bed and covering their sheets with crumbs; Henny dying the white dress she “borrowed” from Ella with tea, to cover a stain; Sarah stubbornly refusing to eat her soup. Publisher Lizzie Skurnick, founding editor of Skurnick Books, who in 2014 reissued the four sequels to All-of-a-Kind Family, called the series “completely singular. They’re the first series about a Jewish family ever, one that’s not only about the family, but about Jewish culture, New York, the turn of the century, vaudeville, polio, the rise of technology.”
Skurnick has called All-of- a-Kind Family the Jewish Little House on the Prairie.
Although the series is considered groundbreaking because of its focus on the lives of Eastern European Jews, little has been written about the books’ author—the dancer, actress, and writer Sydney Taylor. Fortunately, a biography, tentatively called From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman behind All-of-a-Kind Family, by Professor June Cummins with Alexandria Dunietz, is now in the works, and set to be brought out from Yale University Press in the next few years. Much of the information in this article is culled from work recently published by Cummins.
Though readers may not know much about Taylor, the story of the writing of the first All-of-a-Kind Family book is a familiar one. Many of the best children’s books begin as bedtime stories. One evening, Taylor has written, her daughter asked why all the children in the books she read were Christians. Taylor also saw that her daughter, an only child, was sometimes lonely:
When she was a little girl she would say: Mother, I hate going to bed. It’s so lonesome. Won’t you stay awhile?
I would look around the room with its solitary bed, and my mind would go back to my own childhood. Once again I would be living in the flat on New York’s Lower East Side where five little girls shared one bedroom—and never minded bedtime. Snuggled in our beds we would talk and giggle and plan tomorrow’s fun and mischief.
Later, Taylor wrote, she found that her daughter liked the stories she told at bedtime so much that she decided to write them down “especially for her … Satisfied I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.”
But one summer, the story goes, when Taylor was away, her husband unearthed the manuscript. He had seen the announcement of a contest organized by the publishing company Wilcox & Follet. He sent his wife’s manuscript in. In Sydney Taylor’s words:
No one was more surprised than I when I received a letter from Mrs. Meeks, the Children’s Book Editor of Wilcox & Follett, telling me she wanted to publish All-of-a-Kind Family. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told my husband and the whole story came out. Then Mr. Follett telephoned me to say that All-of-a-Kind Family had won the Follett [Award].
This Cinderella story of publishing, which represents the publication of the first book of the series as casual, almost accidental, has been questioned by relatives of Taylor’s, who say that the writer worked on the first novel for at least a couple of years and sent it around to publishers, in hopes that it would be accepted. The more frequently told story suggests that either Taylor or her publishers, in that decade of conformity after the Second World War and before the feminism of the 1960s, did not want to represent the author as a person with literary ambitions.
In any case, what is clear is that, at the late age of 46, after successful careers as an actress and dancer, Sydney Taylor began another, important, long and fruitful career as a writer of fiction for children.
Born Sarah Brennan on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1904, Sydney Taylor was the American daughter of immigrant Jews. The stories in the All-of-a-Kind Family series are smoothed-over, prettied-up versions of the stories she lived with her sisters, whose names, like those of the girls in the series, really were Ella, Henrietta, Charlotte, and Gertrude.
The Sarah of All-of-a-Kind Family is the sister most readers know best, the one whose eyes we most often see through. She is the middle child, the one who tells the library lady she has lost her library book; who learns how to dust by searching the parlor for hidden buttons; who buys hot chickpeas from a Yiddish-speaking peddler; who falls ill with scarlet fever just before Passover, and later invites the library lady to come see the family Succah. This middle child is a representation of Sydney Taylor herself. In a 2014 talk about Taylor at New York City’s Tenement Museum, Professor Cummins explained that, in the diaries she began writing when she was 14, Sarah Brennan began calling herself Sydney. Professor Cummins sees this name change, this taking on of a new identity, as emblematic of life-long conflicts Taylor experienced. Disliking the way gender roles are assigned in our culture, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a male name; uncomfortable about being Jewish in a mostly-Protestant country, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a recognizably Anglo-Saxon name. Throughout her life as a writer, Taylor received fan letters that addressed her as “Mr.”
Taylor’s parents, Celia Marowitz and Morris Brennan, the Mama and Papa of the series, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1900, along with more than 2 million other Jews who escaped religious persecution and entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. Celia, born in Russia, had lived a middle-class life in the city of Bremen, but Morris was poor, from a town in Poland famous for making brushes out of pigskin and bristle. After the couple married and moved to the United States, and as Morris struggled to find work, the couple experienced a poverty deeper and more painful than Taylor suggests in the children’s books. Cummins says that this period—when Morris began work as a junk seller, when illness ran rampant through cramped tenements, and when the family lived in a four-room apartment—was particularly difficult for Taylor’s mother, because she was used to a middle-class life. (Signs of her more refined tastes can be seen in Taylor’s description of the front room Sarah dusts, with its piano and china knickknacks.)
Soon the family was no longer an “all-of-a-kind” family: Celia Brennan had three boys, one of whom died in infancy. The real Irving’s counterpart enters the world in the last chapter of the first book of the series, as the long-hoped for boy, Charlie. In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, the last book of the series, Mama tells Ella she is pregnant with a baby, whom Professor Cummins identifies as Taylor’s youngest brother, Jerry. Soon the ever-larger family’s finances became stabilized and—just like their counterparts in More All-of-a-Kind Family—they moved into a duplex, in the Bronx, with seven rooms.
Taylor and her siblings were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, experiencing, as the family does in the books, the many rituals of an observant Jewish life, their time punctuated by familiar expressions of reverence, history, and culture. Still, as they grew older, “Syd Brenner” (as she called herself) assimilated into the Protestant world. Throughout her two years of high school and after, Taylor went to parties on Friday nights, worked on Saturdays, ate in non-kosher restaurants, and forgot some of the Jewish holidays. She worked for a while in an office, and during that time, because she was blonde and her co-workers did not realize that she was Jewish, experienced anti-Semitism, often in the form of cruel jokes.
Still, she lived in a mostly Jewish world. After leaving high school in 1916, she took classes in drama and began attending meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League. This was a heavily Jewish organization, the youth affiliate of the Socialist party. The group, which held social get-togethers as well as organizational meetings, believed strongly in democracy, but also worked for a classless society. They argued for the elimination of ethnic and religious discrimination.
At a YPSL meeting, Syd Brenner met Ralph Taylor, and in 1925 they married. That same year Taylor began working as an actress with the Lenox Hill Players. In the last of the All of Kind Family series, the oldest sister Ella joins a vaudeville act, performs on stage, and experiences the difficulties and pleasures of that hard work. Much of this last novel of the series is drawn from Taylor’s experiences with the Lenox Hill Players. In the book Taylor expresses some of the conflict she felt between this not-completely-satisfying career and her desire for a more conventional life with Ralph Taylor.
Still, even after she left the world of acting, Syd Taylor worked. From 1930 till 1935 she performed as a professional dancer in Martha Graham’s first dance troupe. Many of the women with whom she performed went on to become famous in the dance world: Choreographer Anna Sokolow later staged works for the New York City Opera, the Jullliard School, and, at Jerome Robbins’s urging, for the Inbal Dancers in Israel. Sophie Maslow, who danced alongside Taylor, later created the company New Dance Group, dedicated to using dance to making social and political statements. Like Taylor, many of these dancers were the children of poor Russian Jewish immigrant families.
In 1935, after giving birth to her only child, Jo, Taylor decided to stay home. When Jo was 7, Taylor began working as a dance and drama teacher at the Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) Camp in Port Jervis, New York, where she was known as Aunt Syd. Her sisters worked there, too: Ella as costume designer, Henny as dining room supervisor. Book lovers like their fictional counterparts, Syd, Ella, Henny, Charlotte, and Gertrude also established the Camp Cejwin library, which some claim is the first camp library ever created. By this time Ralph (who, as Uncle Ralph, also helped out at Camp Cejwin) had become president of Caswell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, and the Taylors’ political views had softened. Still, Professor Cummins says, a photograph of Eugene Debs hung on the wall of their home.
Time rolled along, but Taylor had not completely forgotten the answer she always gave when people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite her interest in the stage, in politics, and in dance, she had always responded that she wanted to become a writer.
In Lower East Side Memories, her history of what she calls “an American Jewish sacred place,” Dr. Hasia Diner describes how influential All-of-a-Kind Family was in presenting a romanticized version of the neighborhood to the rest of the world. She explains how, in Milwaukee and San Antonio and Chicago, little Jewish girls, who had never seen representations of their ethnicity in books before, read All-of-a-Kind Family and felt that they were coming home. She suggests that the setting of the book was particularly powerful because so much of European Jewish life had recently been lost in the war. Also, as second-generation immigrants, Taylor’s generation had moved far away from the busy area, out of the city, to places of “lawns and wide-open spaces.” Taylor reminded her peers of a place like the places where they grew up, where the streets were mean but the people were sweet. In her descriptions of the outdoor marketplace in the heart of the city, Taylor “took readers on a sensory journey to a realm of distinctive sounds, smells, tastes, and sights.” On Taylor’s Lower East Side, Diner tells us, no one needed to be embarrassed of their Jewishness, and American patriotism existed side by side with Jewish life.
It was partly the editing of the book that made that combination of Jewishness and Americanness clear. Cummins describes how the children’s books editor Esther Meeks “politely but firmly insisted on several significant changes” to the manuscript Ralph Taylor had sent in to the contest. Meeks encouraged Taylor to emphasize the relationship between Charlie and Kathy, two of the few Christian characters in the first book. Meeks strongly suggested that Taylor add a chapter in which the family celebrates the Fourth of July, writing, “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.” Cummins also points out that Taylor “never once” mentions that Mama and Papa were born outside of the United States. Though other characters have Yiddish accents, Sydney Taylor’s Mama and Papa do not.
The book that came of these edits, out of her daughter’s questions, out of her yearning memory of the place and time of her childhood, was the best that Sydney Taylor ever wrote. She followed it with the four sequels and five other children’s books, the last two published after her death in 1978 at age 73. After her death, her husband Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award. It is presented every year to the author of an outstanding book for children and teens, that authentically portrays the Jewish experience.
In 1981, Sydney Taylor’s sisters came together at Camp Cejwin to watch campers perform a play version of All-of-a-Kind Family. The elderly sisters—Ella, Henny, Charlotte and Gertie—sat in the front row together and watched children perform a story of their lives.
Guernica interviews Meghan Daum about The Little House on the Prairie, finding a home in Los Angeles and the necessity of restructuring the conversation about children. Pair with our own Hannah Gersen’s review of her essay collection The Unspeakable and Edan Lepucki’s take on Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.
Though as I kid I’d read The Long Winter, I was really more familiar with the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder via the long-running NBC television series, which recast her work as a warm paean to family togetherness during the cocaine-dusted, wife-swapping 1970s (and a show now appropriately preserved in the golden amber of the Hallmark Channel). Bolstered by the anti-sentimentalism of art school, I’d somehow fallen in line with this received opinion, dismissing her work as innocent and sanitized, of no real value except as a way of passing one’s time in a false nostalgia for a Good Old Days that probably never existed. But during a recent snowstorm here in Oak Park, Illinois, vaguely remembering a detail of Wilder’s Long Winter – how the snow drifted so high that she could watch the feet of passersby from her attic window – I started rereading the 1940 book with my daughter Clara, just to pass the time during our own little blizzard.
Well, was I proved wrong. Really wrong. Not only by the book’s utter lack of sentimentality, but by the surprisingly lean, stark, and even occasionally self-deceiving personalities Wilder brings to life through her clear memory and clean prose. Warmth and love were indeed present, but they were a warmth and love that felt absolutely genuine, forged of clinging, human suffering, and tempered to a ring of authenticity by the details of close-quartered familiarity its characters endured. Sacrifice, self-denial and desperation blow through the book’s pages, and the frozen panic suffered by the Ingalls family during that 1880-81 South Dakota winter ended up feeling almost as immediate as the snowstorm framed by the windows of our 98% Energy-Star-rated-furnace-heated house, my daughter taking refuge under a blanket in a hinged ottoman as shelter from the real-er snow of Wilder’s words.
Once both storms had subsided, Clara and I started the nine-book Little House series from the beginning and set out on a tour of literary discovery that surprised and amazed me, from the grisly sweet early memories (the “pig-bladder” episode that every kid reader remembers) to her middle years following her possibly deluded father all over the midwest in search of a reliable land claim, to her onerous marriage and house-keeping with Almanzo Wilder. Looking back on the books as a single work, Wilder not only creates an almost sculptural sense of time’s passage – what it feels like to go from childhood to adulthood – but also seems to adapt her writing to the task, beginning with simpler words cradling simpler, childish images and ending with more detailed, complex, uncomfortable and disjointed chapters, the bone-lean accounting of her marriage in a semi-unfinished follow-up of her First Four Years with Almanzo in which their crops repeatedly fail, their house burns and a bereft neighbor asks Laura to make a gift of her only child acting as a bitter chaser to the whole.
Apparently I’m not alone in this rediscovery, as her work has inspired an explosion of post-NBC Ingalls Wilder-loving websites and memoirs, myriad fictionalized follow-up book series extending other characters’ lives (and I will nose-holdingly overlook the whole itchy connection of her daughter Rose Wilder to the Libertarian party though I won’t overlook recent scholarship which reveals her semi-fictionalized writing as a collaboration between her fact-flat mind and Rose’s more rounded powers of literary empathy) to her just this year being inducted, as a real literary writer, into the Library of America. Such a plaudit is justified. She breathes on the page as a clear-aired voice who speaks not only to children, but to the children that wii-playing/guitar-polishing/adventure-movie-watching America claims we can remain regardless of our age. In short, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us, and tells us quite beautifully and bluntly, to grow up.
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I recently got out of a three-year relationship with a cat. Her name was Zoe, and I got her from a shelter the first year I lived in Chicago. She was 10 or 11 when I got her, they weren’t sure, and she had a bevy of trust issues. The family who gave her to the shelter said she’d been bullied by a dog, but I call bullshit on that. Zoe was not afraid of dogs, she was afraid of people and plastic bags.
When I took her home for the first time, she ran into the closet and only came out to eat and use the litter box — only when I was gone — for two weeks. Gradually she warmed up to me. After a month she would sit nearby while I read. One evening, after two months, she sat in front of my chair for a while looking studiously at me and then, having made her decision, jumped into my lap for the first time. “Finally!” I shouted, which scared her and she ran away.
But soon after, and permanently, we were best friends. She followed me everywhere, slept next to my pillow, and greeted me at the door every night. She never warmed up to anyone else, though. When people came over she would hide for the majority of their visit. Sometimes I had catsitters who never saw her. She epitomized the cat that people describe when they roll their eyes and say they hate cats.
This was all fine with me. Her personality, her elegant apathy, and the way she would jump into dresser drawers when it rained, were my secrets, and I was the entirety of her universe. (Sometimes I would shout this at her if I couldn’t get her to stay still so I could brush her hair: “I’m the entirety of your universe!”)
Unironically loving a cat when you are a single woman is not socially savvy. Sometimes, when I would mention Zoe, I could see people wince as they tallied the facts in their head: bookish, lives alone, knits a lot, watches Charlie Rose. There’s a moment in an old MST3K episode where a cop in his squad car is dubbed to say, “Ehh, if I stop and get donuts I’ll just be reinforcing the stereotype.” That’s what it was like when I got a cat.
But I loved Zoe. I loved having six pounds of unconditional love waiting for me every time I came home, and why wouldn’t I? The sense remained, though, that loving a cat was something I should chiefly keep to myself. I could present her to the world in some absurd, deprecating fashion — pictures of her stuck under things, making human faces, like I kept her around as performance art — but the fact that she was a little creature who mattered to me enormously was too lame to admit.
When I was five I went to afternoon kindergarten. After my brothers went to school in the morning, my mom would read to me from The Little House on the Prairie series. The Wilder family had a bulldog named Jack that went with them everywhere, protected them on several occasions, and was Laura’s first playmate. In the beginning of the fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies in his sleep. My mom didn’t know this was coming, and as she was reading she started skipping the more expository passage, and the description of the Wilder girls starting to cry. She thought she had made it vague enough that the truth wouldn’t sink in. But when she finished the chapter and closed the book, I looked at her and said, “Is Jack going to wake up?”
She went over to the phone, called the school, and said, “Janet isn’t coming to kindergarten today. She just learned about death.”
I thought a lot about this story in the past few weeks, as I realized Zoe was sick, and we tried a few treatments, and she kept getting worse. We’d had three cats when I was a kid, and they’d all exited our lives quite gracefully. Muffin fell asleep under a bush and died. Scratches died in an accident while I away visiting my grandparents. Skittles annoyed my mom so much that she eventually sent her to live on a farm. (I’ve given her many dignified opportunities to back of out this claim, but she maintains its truth.)
It became clear that the rest of Zoe’s life, or death, would have to be managed, and managed by me. It’s an agonizing process. Every decision felt selfish. It was heart-rending to have Zoe come sit on my lap while I was thinking about whether it was worthwhile to keep her alive.
Being the entirety of her universe, I was the only person who cared about Zoe, and I would be the only person to mourn her. My friends and family were wonderfully sympathetic, but what I needed was empathy. I needed a story to turn to, and I couldn’t think of one. For grief there’s A Year of Magical Thinking, for breakups there’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but what could I read when I lost my cat? Cats usually show up in books as witches or set dressing for spinsters. I remembered the story of the Wilders’ bulldog, and there are certainly enough books for every dog situation, but I didn’t have a Marley, I had shy, loyal, damaged, affectionate Zoe. Then I thought of Philip Pullman.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, each character has a dæmon. A dæmon is a visible extension of your soul standing beside you in animal form. Dæmons mimic the emotions of their humans, sleep when they sleep, and cannot be physically separated from them by more than a few yards. When you’re young your dæmon changes form depending on your mood, but at adolescence they “settle” into a permanent form. A particularly malicious character’s dæmon is a golden monkey, for instance, where a soldier might have a wolf. It’s considered grossly invasive to touch another person’s dæmon.
I’m not saying that Zoe was an extension of my soul. I am saying that we were unique to each other. Cats choose their people, unlike their more egalitarian canine counterparts, and don’t bother with anyone else. I tend to think that all she thought about all day was noises, whether or not she was cold, and where I was. This is why deciding to put her down felt so cruel, because I was the only thing she relied on and I gave up on her.
Pullman’s main character, Lyra, needs to travel to the underworld. The only way she can do this and survive is to leave her dæmon, Pantalaimon, behind, breaking the body-soul connection so that both halves will survive. It’s betrayal, selflessness, guilt, and grief all at once.
“Lyra was doing the cruellest thing she had ever done, hating herself, hating the deed, suffering for Pan and with Pan and because of Pan; trying to put him down on the cold path, disengaging his cat-claws from her clothes, weeping, weeping.”
I found this chapter in my copy of The Amber Spyglass and read it the afternoon I came home without Zoe. I felt as alone in grieving for Zoe as I had in loving her, and an old beloved book — magically, just like they’re supposed to — was the companion that understood.
Image courtesy of the author.
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]
In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had. I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents. Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.
Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric. When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book. But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong. The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.
The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers. Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).
One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves. A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.
Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential. The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.
And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work. The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too. At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted. In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle. Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room. They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.
It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way. One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think. To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.
[Image source: David Goehring]
There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the under-the-radar boost in book sales due to the increasing popularity of home-schooling. According to the article, home-schoolers come in a few different flavors. “The majority of families who home-school are conservative Christians, to be sure. But another sizable portion are secular counterculturalists, and then there are the diplomats, foreign-aid workers or those living in the desert or Alaskan wilderness–anyone far from a school.” But what’s more interesting is what these students have in common as readers: a preference for long books, often parts of a series, consumed with a leisure that public-school curricula don’t allow; an emphasis on narratives, which children like, divorced from contemporary politics, which surely can wait; and a powerful sense that children are major players in the world, the kind of people, perhaps, who deserve better than large classrooms and who may grow up more likely to write books than to be told which ones to read.The most popular series, across the political spectrum, are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books and the books of G.A. Henty.