Long before I ever considered writing as a vocation, I was a reader. I cut my teeth on Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” I studied P.D. Eastman’s seminal “Go, Dog, Go,” with its dark themes about class struggle and responsibility. From the shelves of the Houston-Love Memorial Library’s children’s room, I mined the oeuvre of Dr. Seuss, and moved on to the Beverly Cleary’s exploits of Henry Huggins and his emaciated dog, Ribsy, and then the Ramona Quimby books, because there were character overlaps in the Huggins and Quimby storylines. After I’d run through every case solved by the ingenious Hardy Boys, I made off stealthily with my older sister’s books, reading and surreptitiously returning the classic Bobbsey Twins novels and the Nancy Drew series.
At school, I discovered the indulgence of subscriptions. Periodically, the teacher would hand out pamphlets called “The Weekly Reader,” and those were banner days. We each got a copy, and it was ours to keep. I tried to memorize every page.
People are also reading…
One afternoon, trying to stave off the paralyzing dread of an imminent visit to Dr. Hanahan’s examination room, I sifted through a mountain of tattered “Good Housekeeping,” “Guideposts,” and “Redbook” back issues on a low table in the waiting room to find a dog-eared copy of a thin publication called “Highlights for Children.” I grabbed it and dove in, and on the way home, begged my mother to get a subscription for me. Before long, one came in the mail, and I started waiting at the end of the driveway every day for Mr. Junior Lee the postman, so I could find out if he had my magazine in the bottom of his leather mailbag.
My favorite thing about “Highlights” was a cartoon feature called Goofus and Gallant. The point of the strip was to urge youngsters to become good citizens. Gallant took out the garbage without being told. He was polite and kind to old people and birds.
Ingeniously, the author drew the two characters to look exactly alike in a far-too-subtle attempt to suggest the philosophical concept that both live within us. Unfortunately, I identified more with Goofus, who was a subversive, and may well have been a sociopath. I would flip through the magazine to read Goofus and Gallant first because I couldn’t wait to see what sort of shenanigans the bad boy was up to.
Grandmother’s house held a motherlode, but her magazines were different. There were pictures and stories about people like Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra, boozy paparazzi shots of Liz and Richard, and endless recounting of Andy Williams and the scandalous Claudine Longet. I had no idea who any of them were, but the magazines were more interesting than “Coronet,” and — oo-la-lah! — had advertisements for Frederick’s of Hollywood in the back pages.
As I grew older, I went car crazy. Somewhere around the fourth grade, I subscribed to “Hot Rod” magazine for a couple of years. Then I was struck by the demon rock’n’roll and switched my subscription to “Rolling Stone” through high school. In college, I took “Atlantic Monthly.” In adulthood, I received “The New York Times Book Review” for a while, “Reader’s Digest” and “Smithsonian.” For decades I have taken “The New Yorker” and “Cook’s Illustrated.” And there have been smaller works — the now defunct “Verbatim,” a typewritten and mimeographed periodical called “A Wild Surmise,” and a listserv called WriterL.
These days, I read so much at work that pleasure reading lacks the allure it once had. My New Yorkers are stacking up, but I’ll get to them eventually. I have a couple of books to plow through; I’ve been dipping a toe into “The Far Pavilions,” M.M. Kaye’s 1,000-page epic tale set in India, and want to read another doorstop, Abraham Verghese’s “Covenant of Water.” I may well have bitten off more than I can chew, as I have had on my to-be-read list a book about the violent Mau Mau insurrection of the 1950s called “Something of Value” by Robert Ruark for years, as well as a book about the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge that I’m determined to finish.
The upside is that whenever someone asks what I’m reading, I have a ready answer.