All my life I've had a mania for reading. And when I say "all my life" I mean it literally. I desperately wanted to understand writing long before I ever learned the alphabet.
Of course, I didn't know what writing was or what it did, but I sensed it somehow took people to a different place, some magical Somewhere. I remember being no older than four, watching my father reading the paper and then talking to my mother about what he'd read. And since what he talked about didn't take place in the living room, I knew it had to be about things beyond the here and now.
Before I went to kindergarten my mother read to me constantly, but while I looked at the text, I only understood the drawings. Writing was still an unsolvable mystery.
Finally I learned to read in school. And while new worlds came to me through print, most of them were pretty dull compared to "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Stewart Little" and "Charlotte's Web." Then again, I was reading state-approved textbooks - a guarantee of colorless tedium. The tedium could've lasted forever had I not been rescued by the Saranac Lake Free Library's annual book sale.
Beginnings of "The Boy Wonder"
When my mother first took me to the sale I was in single digits, maybe 6 or 7, and as soon as I saw (and smelled) all those books, I was in Wonderland. I can't remember the books I first got, nor did it matter. All that mattered was I'd found a place where books - all kinds of books - could be my very own. After my first library sale, I never missed another one, and all of them gave me both great books and great adventures.
My first great score happened when I was about 10 and copped something called "The Children's Encyclopedia." It was published in England and the one I had had been published in the early 1920s. It was written in an archaic but beautifully eloquent style. It was also moldy and the covers were falling off, which didn't bother me, since I couldn't expect a lot for 25 cents a volume. Besides, the pages themselves were stitched so well the books held up for years.
Complete, the encyclopedia was 10 volumes, but I think I had only six of them. No matter - that was enough to fascinate me endlessly. It covered all sorts of subjects -?history, fairy tales, bible stories, geography, poetry, adventure stories, crafts - and much more that I've forgotten.
One thing I haven't forgotten was their magic tricks. There were all sorts of them, but most involved using chemicals, for such wonders as apparently changing water to wine, or producing fire from my fingertips. The directions always began, "Procure from your chemist's shop " A "chemist" was the British term for pharmacist, and luckily I couldn't get any of those things from Mr. Bevilaqua, because if I had, I'm sure I would've poisoned, blinded or set myself on fire.
I did learn a rope trick. The instructions were hard to figure out, especially because they were not accompanied by illustrations. But I really wanted to learn it, so I kept reading and rereading the instructions, rope in hand. Though hardly known for my persistence in those days, I stuck with this one. It took me literally hundreds of tries and the better part of a week, but finally I learned it.
Learning that trick stood me in good stead in what would be a lifetime hobby. First, I realized I could learn magic tricks from written instructions (a lot of magicians can't). And second, even though that was the first trick I learned, I've performed it dozens of times in all sorts of venues, and it's always gone over well.
Limits of the literati
The library sale introduced me to science fiction. Since paperbacks cost a nickel or so, I could afford to buy books I knew nothing about, and sci-fi was one of them. I had an adventure with sci-fi but not one I ever expected.
I bought a book called "Tomorrow!" by Philip Wylie. Written in 1954, it was about the nuclear holocaust and life thereafter. It's still in print and still gets good reviews, even though its basic premise is as hysterical as it is outdated. Being the 15-year-old intellectual I was, I thought the book was brilliant, a real must-read.
And someone who I knew must read it was my pal Nancy Jo Johnson. Nancy was one of the most fun people I've ever known. She was a real sport, with a riotous sense of humor. It never mattered what we did or where we were - we always had a great time. But beyond her being fun and funny, she was smart as a whip. And she was smart everywhichway - she could do math, science, history, you name it. So of course I wanted her to read this book, both for her own enlightenment and to get her feedback. Alas, neither was to be.
I gave her the book, and when I saw her the next day, she handed it back to me.
"Finished already?" I asked, impressed.
"No," she said. "I didn't get to read it at all."
"Why not?" I asked.
"My mother won't let me," she said.
"Your mother won't let you read it?" I asked, boggled. "But why?"
"The cover," she said.
"The cover? What about it?"
"Didn't you look at it?"
"I dunno," I said. "I may have, but what about it?"
"Look for yourself," she said.
And suddenly I realized why her mother wouldn't let her read the book.
The cover, following the style of 1950s pulp fiction, was a classic. The colors were bright, lurid, even. In the background was a huge mushroom cloud over the smoldering ruins of a city. In the foreground was a building, out of which were running a pack of freaking and shrieking citizens of that just-atomized burgh.
And at the very front of that pack was a woman. She was leggy, blonde and buxom, and her dress (due to the shock waves, of course) was ripped and shredded. In my defense, it'd been a very strategic ripping and shredding: No serious amount of flesh was exposed, and probably the raciest element of the drawing was a sliver of her snow-white bra visible above her dress's ragged neckline.
By almost any standards except those of a mother of a 15-year-old daughter in 1962, it was a completely innocent drawing. But even more ironically, the cover had nothing to do with the book itself: The story actually was about nuclear war, not nuclear hanky-panky. No matter - I knew I was beat.
I took back the book and took three good lessons along with it.
One: To some people, seeing a little skin can be a bigger threat than reading about total war.
Two: Even if adults told us never to judge a book by its cover, that's exactly what they did.
And three: What Mama don't know, ain't gonna hurt her.