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Saturday, January 14, 2017

A beginning: Books I've loved

by Jamie Lutton

I have been struggling now for several years to get down on paper some observations on books, book reading, and book selling.

I think I have an interesting perspective on this. I had one of the most awful childhoods meshed with getting to be around very bright, well read parents who shared their love of books. School was a misery, as I had an undiagnosed mental troubles combined with dealing with an unstable, angry alcoholic mother.

Total face blindness combined with severe manic depression meant I slunk though the halls at school dodging spit, screams of mockery and physical attacks, while at home had to watch my mother drink heavily every night after work.

The glimpses of pleasure I got started early, when I began to read anything I could get my hands on to escape my surroundings.

I discovered I was a speed reader pretty early, while still in elementary school, and that I had a taste for non fiction. Novels tend to involve people, men women and children, overcoming obstacles and 'growing.' I had had enough of that in my own life.

I developed a love of poetry, at least I am fond of the poets my mother used to read to me when she was only half in the bag - Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, Frost's Death of the Hired Man, Robert Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millary, etc. She would tilt her chair back on two legs, at the dining table, smoke a cigarette, and read aloud from some collection or another lying around, in the smoke-filled, rather disorderly house. A particular favorite of hers was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, which she would try to recite without the book, especially the few lines, when she was really three sheets to the wind.

Both my parents smoked like chimneys, and indoors, a habit of a bygone era of the Greatest Generation. The walls were tinted yellow from the constant haze of cigarettes and Panatella cigars that dad smoked.

But mostly, from an early age, I read 'geeky' nonfiction. I had an appetite for science fiction and fantasy, as good escapes from my grim situation, but I was drawn to adult books on psychology, like How Children Fail, by John Holt, which I ate up in fourth grade when the school I was in was in the process of expelling me for ''fighting'' because I was defending myself from the bullies who hit me. Loved the book, and it still speaks to me.

I loved nonfiction - massive adult books about kangaroos, volcanoes, plagues, earthquakes, cats, battles. Not so much biographies, as their subjects often had painful lives and I was trying to escape that kind of pain.

Through my school years, I was reading two books a day, while phoning in my school work, handing in grubby sheets with incredibly poor handwriting on them.

I mostly was just trying to exist without being harassed, by either my schoolmates my siblings -- the two closest to me in age and I did not get along at all, in those years --
and to tune out my mother's drunken ravings.

Now and then, she would read to me. When I was really little, she read to me all the time, The Little Engine that Could, and like that. She was a children's librarian by day, and a damn good one -- she would seek out hard-to-get books to put into the library system she worked in, and was a fierce champion of banned books. She was a very smart, well read woman with a wicked sense of humor - -I would miss her more now that she has been dead nearly 10 years, if she had not also been a raging, angry, accusatory, paranoid drunk.

She got drunk most days, and was not fun to listen to, not fun to be around. I did seize on the times when she was still sober, and would talk about authors she liked. Many of them are my favorites too, such as Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, and Rex Stout, but those times were rare, as most of the time she was trying to get as drunk as possible and stay as drunk as possible every night.

I think that is why books are so important to me. If I had not been a bookworm at an early age, I would have killed her. I had taped up on my wall for years a clipping about an 18 year old girl who did not get into Harvard, though she had been admitted with a full scholarship. She had killed her own drunken, abusive mother when she was 14, and was locked up for it till she was 18. Eventually she got in to Tufts, hurrah.

She was my hero, privately, gleefully, for what she had done. Later on, I forgave my mother, as she lost her eyesight as her smoking (and drinking) made her macular degeneration worse.

She suffered so by not having books to escape into. She listened to tapes and listened to a lot of NPR. I forgave her, and understood her; I think she had the same brain trouble I did, and medicated herself by drinking.

So, books are important to me -- and not novels, though I have read and liked a fair number, but nonfiction. Some nonfiction books I have read over and over, and those are the ones I want to write about. Also those that I may only have read three times, but I thought were stellar.

And as a bookseller, I have noticed that some authors and subjects are difficult to read without some explanation, some "helps''. Either they address problems that are not clear to us, context we don't understand easily -- like Thomas Paine, or they wrote in a bewilderingly different era, like Dante's or Elizabeth Barrett Browning's time.

Next February I will have been selling books with a licence for 30 years (before that, I was a book scout, buying books and selling them to bookstores.) I have handled books for resale 42 years. In that time, I have come across nonfiction books that deserve attention, on many many different subject --Statistics, drug crazes, to poets, stock market crashes, human and animal evolution, etc.

Let me share my knowledge with you. I have read a lot of second rate books, badly written or boring books, and I think I can offer up some of the best of what I found.

This is very idiosyncratic list. I am fond of plagues, disasters, and diseases, but some are quiet
accounts of love, knowledge, dreams and inspiration.

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