Wednesday, May 10, 2017

`I Read Everything Just Alike--Snap'

Her name was Beth Ann Daniels, she had a high forehead, reddish-blonde hair and wore glasses with a pale pink frame and thick round lenses that reminded some of us of Dr. Cyclops. We were in friendly competition. Our grade school had a library on the second floor, in a corner room smaller than a classroom. Each week, our teacher ushered us into the library and gave us a few minutes to choose the books we wanted. By the time we were in the sixth grade and soon to enter junior high, Beth Ann and I had plowed through everything, from the Homer Price, to Henry Gregor Felsen’s Street Rod, to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. We had exhausted the school library and shifted the focus of our supply to the public library. Our teacher and the librarian made a big fuss over us. As Eudora Welty puts it in her 1957 essay “A Sweet Devouring” (The Eye of the Story: Selected Essay and Reviews (1977):

“The home shelves had been providing me all along with the usual books, and I read them with love—but snap, I finished them. I read everything just alike—snap.”

We never had a lot of books at home until I started accumulating them, but I recognize the “snap.” That’s how I read my father’s collection of Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated from the nineteen-fifties. At the public library, Welty is introduced to the Series Books (her capitalization), a source of joy for greedy readers. “There were many of everything, instead of one,” Welty writes. “I wasn’t coming to the end of reading, after all—I was saved.”

Welty doesn’t mention it specifically, but ambitious young readers gradually, often without even noticing, put away childish things. In my case, science fiction was the first to go. There’s little sustenance in it for an adult. Nominally grownup books crept in – Twain and Kafka, Perelman and Benchley, Joseph Wood Krutch and Roger Tory Peterson. The transition is seamless, marred only by occasional adolescent snobbery. “I didn’t know what I liked,” Welty says, “I just knew what there was a lot of.” It never occurred to me to be cowed by the bulk of an individual title or the uncharted ocean of everything ever written. I was too na├»ve and having too much fun to develop a Weltanschauung. Instead, I was an omnivore with gourmand tendencies. Welty puts it beautifully:

“The pleasures of reading itself—who doesn’t remember?—were like those of a Christmas cake, a sweet devouring.”

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