Friday, November 03, 2017

Books in Our House

Looking north on Greensburg's South Main Street in the 1950s--
the view I would have had just after leaving the public library.
When I was growing up just beyond the city limits of Greensburg, PA, its Main Street and the two parallel blocks on either side of it constituted the commercial center of the town and the surrounding township, and in some ways of the entire county.

 The two most prominent destinations of my downtown world were near either end of this district: the two movie theaters to the north, the public library at its southern edge. Between them were three department stores, plus a J.C. Penney and a Sears. There were a number of specialty shops, for womens' fashions, shoe stores, men's suits, and Joe Workman's for work clothes and bargains.

 There were two "five and tens," both large and with their signature red signs and bare wooden floors. During a particular period, I got my model airplane kits in Murphy's basement, $1.01 with tax.
a little farther north on S. Main in the 1940s. The
trolleys ran until the early 50s. That's a bit of the
Murphy's red sign on the right, with McCroys'
across the street in shadow.
 Both Murphy's and the other 5&10, McCroy's, which were across Main Street from each other, had a lunch counter and soda fountain. Sometimes they strung balloons above the counter and a slip of paper inside each one told you how much you would pay for your banana split.

Several drug stores also had lunch counters and tables or booths, with those little juke box machines at each. There were other restaurants, quite large ones like Lee's, but other smaller places, more like diners, some of them with entrances below street level.

 There was an Isaly's with a meat counter but also lots of ice cream, including their skyscraper cones, and of course, their now famous Klondikes.

 There was a camera store, a record store, and a store selling Singer sewing machines. What there were not were bookstores. The shop selling Catholic items had some books, and maybe one of the department stores. But basically there were no hardback books on sale on Main Street, or anywhere in Greensburg, or anywhere I knew of.

 Neither of my parents attended college. When they were married, the US Census described them as factory workers (they met in a war plant.) Soon afterwards my father went to work at that Singer store on South Main Street (its phone number was 409), and my mother was a 1950s homemaker until I was 12 or so, when she worked the night shift in billing at the Westmoreland County Hospital, and over the next decades worked her way up into management.

 Greensburg had its rich people, some of whom were probably well educated, and it had a professional class. But most were like my parents, in the working middle class, with no more than a high school diploma. And the culture was pervasively working class and very local. I can't remember ever seeing books on display in any of the homes I visited in my childhood. There wasn't much of a market for bookstores.

Me at 18 months, almost certainly in our first home,
an apartment on the top floor on College Ave.
The only exception I saw was our home, where there were always books. Here's a photo I'm pretty sure was taken in my first residence, an apartment on the top floor on College Avenue. I'm not yet two years old.

A bit later we moved into what everyone called "the foundation." It would be the basement of our house, once the house was built on it. In our neighborhood at least, many families lived in the foundation while they saved for the house. There are photos of my parents and some relatives there, that show the painted concrete block walls, and again, a small shelf of books.

 Eventually the house built above it would have bookshelves in the living room. My mother expanded this area several times. There were bookshelves in my room, and after I left, the room became a den with the upper half of a wall of books.

 Where did these books come from? (Apart from the little books for me, which I always had, and school books, etc.) Some seemed always to be there, especially the reference books. I still have the thick Collier's yearbooks for 1946 and 1947 that must have come with a set of Collier's encyclopedias. (Later I was given my own set of new encyclopedias. They were relatively thin volumes, blue like the Americana, but "modern" with illustrations, and probably geared to younger readers. I used them for schoolwork.)

 There were of course the Book House books.  Of the books in that photo above I recognize only one set of volumes--their covers were a very distinct green--and I think they were novels by classic authors. There was a book on Abraham Lincoln--I can almost see the dust cover, and it may have been a collection of three books in one volume, but I can't remember anything else about it.

And there were probably a few old text books or required reading, as my mother's sister and brother had gone to college (my grandfather always was saddened about not being able to afford to send my mother, the first-born.) My schoolbooks were mostly hardbacks, but they went back to the school at the end of the year. Probably the most influential such books were volumes on astronomy and science I found on the shelves at the back of my fifth grade classroom when I sat at the last seat in the row. I read them instead of paying attention to math.

There was a big old dictionary at home, with thumb indexes and a ribbon bookmark, like the big missal the priest used at the altar during Mass. It could be my sense of words as holy came partly from this.

But as for other hardback books, there were chiefly two sources. One was the book clubs, namely the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild. These were advertised in magazines and Sunday supplements. Usually you got several books for very little when you joined. By joining you agreed to buy a certain number of books a year. They sent you a brochure describing their next monthly main selection, and if they didn't hear back by a certain date, they would send it. Their monthly brochure also offered other books as substitutes.

I believe we belonged to both clubs at different times. You could join, fulfill your obligation and stop, then later start a new membership and get that introductory batch of books for a buck each. By the time I was in high school, I lobbied my mother to join the Literary Guild so I could get H.G. Wells two volume Outline of History as one of the introductory selections. Eventually we got their special editions of several novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

 I don't however remember specific books before that. My mother got some new novels, like Marjorie Morningstar. She had a biography of Dwight Eisenhower before his presidency that I read. I recall only two others, that interested me for different reasons. One was a collection of single-panel cartoons, many from the New Yorker, that I pored over for hours. That kind of wit was new to me.

The other was a collection of columns by war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a very popular columnist through the 30s and 40s, called Here Is Your War. On the inside flyleaf my mother had recorded the date that he had died, during one of the last battles of World War II, on Okinawa. That notation puzzled me, so I asked her if she'd known him, but she hadn't. Still, it's why I remember it.

 The other chief source of hardback books in our house was the Readers Digest Condensed Books, and I remember quite a few of those. These were thick volumes that came four times a year, each with condensed (or abridged) versions of four or five new books, usually fiction but not always. Apart from excerpts in the many magazines we got, they were the only way a home like ours was apt to get even that much of the new hardbacks.

These were substantial abridgements, though I'm sure they emphasized plot. They were usually by best-selling popular authors, not literary giants, though there were some outstanding writers among them, and they did occasionally include classic authors like Dickens.

 The first titles I remember are from 1955, though that isn't to say I actually read them then. Those books stayed on the shelves that I examined often, so I could have read them years afterwards. From the 1955 volumes, I probably read (or tried to read) Good Morning, Miss Dove,a novel about a teacher, and The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop, a popular historian and journalist. Two I'm certain I read were Run Silent, Run Deep, a novel about submarines, and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the novel upon which the musical Damn Yankees! was based.

 I started it because it was about baseball, and I actually liked the Yankees. But I vividly remember the passages about the middle aged narrator physically becoming the young ball player, feeling himself able to run. I ran all the time, and it hadn't yet occurred to me there might be a time when I no longer could. It was my introduction to how physical aging might feel. (I also was a bit scandalized and scared by the devil aspect of it, being in Catholic school at the time. For all I knew it was a forbidden book. Certainly that "Damn" was suspect.)

As mediocre as much of this probably was, I was alert to things I didn't know from my oddly sheltered life. We obviously had no Jews in Catholic school, but I caught some connections and some differences in immigrant cultures from a novel called Seidman and Son in which a character is a tailor, like my grandfather.

 When I read Advise and Consent, homosexuality was such a forbidden topic that the subplot which involved a gay dalliance was so obscurely suggested that I couldn't figure it out, for I knew nothing whatever about homosexuality anyway. Still, that was my favorite novel for awhile because it involved the U.S. Senate and a world of government I was getting keenly interested in.

 By then--1959--I was catching up, reading the latest Condensed Books volume when it arrived. Besides Advise and Consent, I also read The Ugly American that year. Political fiction and nonfiction were becoming a popular trend, just as I started becoming interested in it.

These abridgements made it possible for me to read a book before it became a movie, whereas it had always been the reverse before. (Disney in particular sent me to books, from the Hardy Boys to Johnny Tremain.)  In particular I read To Kill A Mockingbird before I saw the movie, and so could compare the images in my mind (influenced by the illustrations) with the actors on the screen.  I entered into it completely.

 From these condensed books I got an overly romantic view of writing from Youngblood Hawke, and an overly romantic view of science from The Microbe Hunters. I also went on from these abridged versions to eventually read the entire book, in particular Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 and John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. That Steinbeck novel also sent me to read several of his shorter novels in a single volume my mother had, probably from a book club. (And I could have sworn I read Travels with Charley as a RD condensed book. But I must have gotten it from the library shortly after it came out.)

 We did get a lot of magazines--my mother got all the women's glossies (McCalls, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal), my father got Popular Science and Popular Mechanics (I knew all about the Edsel before it came out), and we usually had Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, and of course, Reader's Digest.

 By the time I was in speech club in high school, it was an overflow--the weekly news magazines, plus the New Republic, the Nation, the Reporter, American Scholar etc. But I mention them in this context because they often referred to the latest books and authors. Apart from what I could guess from context, I had the condensed books to place me in this ongoing stream of contemporary references, especially with topical books like Seven Days in May.

As I've mentioned in an earlier post or two of this series, and as must be obvious from this one, I was not a particularly precocious reader. I wasn't, like Katherine Anne Porter, memorizing Shakespeare's Sonnets at age 13. No, these were gateway drugs, as were the Classics Illustrated Comics I bought, that introduced me to Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and the original H.G. Wells The Time Machine before the movie and The War of the Worlds after it, both very different versions--something else I learned.

 By the time I was in college I learned to denigrate such abominations as abridgements and "condensed" books of novels that were too bad to begin with. My mother's bookshelves would be a middle class embarrassment. I'm not embarrassed anymore. There's no point in wishing I had a better education. In some ways it's a miracle I had any experience of books and book culture. All I can do is record the means, and frankly, remember them fondly.

This is one of a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are on the Book House books, Library Days and the Hardy Boys. and the Boy of Summers.

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