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DISCOVERING AND ABANDONING THE CATHEDRAL OF BOOKS
Diving headlong into the pages of my lifelong Red Clay Diary, I find these notes.
They are both actual and true:
The spindly used and tape-repaired thin-wheeled bicycle is my rocket machine to all parts of the city of Tuscaloosa in the 1950′s. I can hop on that black spider vehicle and escape Eastwood Avenue, Northington Campus and all points east, and ride westward down the breeze toward Downtown and freedom for a few hours.
I yank the front of the bike up to climb curbs, skid parallel to railroad tracks, nearly lose control, then cross several more tracks diagonally to get to the main street of Tuscaloosa.
First stop is the Cathedral of Books, the Tuscaloosa County Library, where the 19th-century Friedman home houses all there is of a public library for the town. Climbing the stairs is like ascending the steps of a Mayan pyramid, for from the top, I can turn and survey passing traffic and pedestrians in the sure knowledge that wherever they are headed, it cannot possibly be as exciting as where I am going. Poor peasants!
Inside the library, it is quiet and creaky, and the odor of musty books is everywhere. Rubberstamped tramping upon library file cards is about the loudest noise. I can spend all the time I want, running my fingers over the spine titles, trying ever so hard to decide what I can actually read by book-return time. How will I ever possibly get to read all those books, go to all those special places that the poor deprived pedestrians and motorists outside cannot even imagine?
I head for the science section, reading all the astronomy and simplified physics books I get my hands on, books by Willy Ley, Chesley Bonstell, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov…then go for the adult fiction area and pick out the authors I have already fallen in love with: Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Max Shulman, Thorne Smith–authors who aren’t really writing fiction at all–they are writing about what I know now, what I know might happen, what I hope won’t happen, what I pray will happen.
Then, poetry, making friends with Robert Frost and Sara Teasdale and Carl Sandburg and James Whitcomb Riley. And on to theatre scripts, plays by Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams…
And then, science fiction! Ray Bradbury and his followers, Arthur C. Clarke, Shirley Jackson, Robert Heinlein, Fredric Brown…and Ray Bradbury again. After reading every science fiction book in the library, I find I need more. Is this all there is? Are there no other books in the universe?
Scouring the shelves each time I go to the Cathedral of Books, I finally realize I have read everything I’ll ever want to read of what is here. The librarians are of no help–they can’t understand my passion for more, because I don’t know how to tell them what more is.
So, I finally stop visiting the Tuscaloosa County Library.
For two reasons, actually. I have read everything I care to read there. But primarily, I do not want to return the books I read. It is very difficult to tumble headlong into a book, fall in love with it, live it, then have to return it to the care of impersonal strangers. The book is my adopted child. How can I return a child? Once born into my hands, once borne by my hands, the child is my responsibility.
The solution comes soon enough, out of sheer desperation. I discover the secret of Lunch Money! Mother gives me lunch money each day, so that I can eat heavy chewy buns and glug pasteurized homogenized Perry’s Pride milk and scarf macaroni and cheese in the Tuscaloosa High School lunchroom. None of this tastes as good as words, written words. It doesn’t take long to realize, with a stretch of ethics and logic, that Mother’s lunch money is a gift to me to do with as I please. I don’t really have to eat! This will leave me with enough money to buy a book or two a day.
So, the Cathedral of Books transplants itself to the Drug Store and the Dime Store, where 25-cent paperback books are available by the hundreds.
At Parkview Drugs in the Parkview Shopping Center across the street from school, I walk my fingers through the racks of randomly un-arranged paperback books–some costing as much as 35 cents!–and select the day’s readings. To heck with milk and bread. Man–er, teen-age boys– cannot live by milk and bread alone, much less government-surplus macaroni and cheese!
The great thing about the paperback book racks is, there’s only one title of each book at any one time, and they are never alphabetized or arranged by subject, as they are at the library. Therefore, I have to go through each and every book, one by one, reading the short blurbs on the front cover and the longer blurbs on the back, then the come-on blurb on the front first page, to find out what each book is about. This means I am exposed to many, many subjects and authors I would never have known about at the Library. I have to learn a little of everything to find out anything!
I buy books I’ve never heard about because of those blurbs–and mainly because of the lurid covers each title sports. Illustrators are assigned the task of making the customer want to purchase the book, so even the most serious titles display scantily dressed women and action-packed scenes that often are not even found inside the books. But it works! I read widely and eclectically because of those lurid pictures and come-on blurbs.
I feel quite sorry for anybody who doesn’t know the joy of randomly browsing through hundreds of subjects and titles, learning more and being exposed to more than teachers can possibly imagine or control.
My self-education is a joy and a spine-tingling challenge. I must sacrifice something to get what I want–lunch, for instance–when I have to peddle all the way downtown on a spindly second-hand bicycle to grab that new book off the rack and rush my quarter to the checkout counter before anybody else can snatch it ahead of me.
Drugstores also have enormous magazine racks that display every kind of subject–Scientific American sits next to the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping. Mad Magazine can be picked up along with Sky and Telescope and Popular Mechanics. I even read the self-grooming ads! I give up my hair tonic money and my acne medicine money for more and better books, which might explain why studious kids like me are always depicted as being pimply, bespectacled and unkempt. We are.
No matter. I get what I want, and I don’t hurt anybody in the long run. I believe my Mother forgives me, too, for she knows that words give me more pleasure than food and grooming. Of course, if I go too long without using soap, she will draw the line.
To this day, every time I pass through a small town and see an old Victorian House that’s been converted into a library or a bookstore, I have to stop in to see what’s what. Each time one of those little towns has an old drugstore, I go in to explore what’s left of the paperback books and magazines.
And I still find, now and then, something well worth reading that I do not know exists until just this moment, waiting on the rack for me and me alone
© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.