I owe my love of reading to Scrooge McDuck, Tom Swift Jr., Lord Greystoke and John Carter of Virginia, Holmes and Watson, Kimball Kinnison, Podkayne Fries, Mithrandir, Steerpike and Fuschia, Conan the Barbarian, Cthulhu, Paul Janus Finnegan, Clark Savage Jr., and a host of other characters. Or, more properly, to Carl Barks, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward E. Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip Jose Farmer, Lester Dent, and a host of other authors.
My reading career started inauspisciously in the 1950s. In First Grade I was placed, by whatever placement process existed for kids so young, into the lowest reading group, the Robins. My fellow group members and I sat around in a circle, attempting to puzzle out the intricacies of Dick and Jane, while we secretly envied the more literate kids in the highest reading group, the Blue Jays.
I grew up in a brand new post-war suburb, Melrose Park, in a small brick house one block from the Philadelphia city line. Outside my bedroom window facing Philadelphia there was a large empty lot that I watched turn into a shopping center, anchored by a Grants department store. Along Front Street, running at right angles to my street a block away, was a Penn Fruit supermarket and another chain of stores, including a drug store, a cleaners, and Nick’s Barbershop. My Dad would joke about how that was a great name for a barbershop.
My Dad worked, and my Mom would take me to the Penn Fruit with her to do the food shopping. In the back corner of the supermarket was a rack of comic books. I would go there while my Mom shopped and look at the comics. Child care was easier in those days and no one worried about letting kids roam the neighborhood or a supermarket comic book section unsupervised. There I was introduced to the world of Carl Barks‘ Duckburg, the Beagle Boys, Magica de Spell, Gyro Gearloose, the Junior Woodchucks, and of course Scrooge himself with his giant Money Bin in which he would induge in his favorite pastime of money diving. This detailed universe was very attractive to my young mind, and more often than not I left the store with one of the 10 cent Dell comics. So I spent my formative years reading comics, until I had a drawer full of them. Oddly, superhero comics didn’t appeal to me, though I read them sometimes, especially when waiting in Nick’s Barbershop for a haircut. Nick had piles of Marvel and DC comics, though all with covers missing for some reason. Most important for me, I was reading, and within little time I climbed the reading group ladder, landing among the Blue Jays, and never looking back.
My Mom didn’t have a drivers license. About once a week or so she went department store shopping, taking a cab all the way to the other end of our township to the Gimbels department store. There she plopped me in the book section of the store. I was about 10 then, and was moving beyond comic books. I was enthralled by books in general. In the book section there was, along one wall, books for children, what we would call young adult fiction today. These were the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift Jr books. I liked science. I had an erector set, a chemistry set, and watched Mr. Wizard on TV. The Tom Swift Jr. books, with their yellow spines and bright exciting covers, were just my cup of tea. And so I, or rather my mother, who liked to encourage me to read, bought me Tom Swift Jr books. I spent many happy hours reading them, hoping one day to be a clever inventor just like him.
There were paperback books at Gimbels, and I looked at them, especially the science fiction books. I was attracted to their covers, showing rocket ships and aliens and what-not. I bought a few, but found I was not quite up to their reading level yet. However it wasn’t long before I outgrew comics and Tom Swift Jr. and graduated to what I thought of as “real books.”
This was the 1960s, well into the so-called paperback revolution. Paperbacks were cheap then, even considering inflation. Most were 50 cents, some 40 cents or even 35 cents. Copyright laws were more lax, and books long out of print were reprinted for new generations of readers. Two book companies, Ace Books and Ballantine Books, decided to reprint nearly the entire corpus of the adventure and scientific romance author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stories of the jungles of Africa, Mars, Venus, the Earth’s Core, the Moon, the Land that Time Forgot, and Beyond the Farthest Star—all with brilliant cover artwork by Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta, and others—were available and easily affordable. My parents would go shopping along Fifth Street in Philadelphia, where, on one corner, there was the Universal Bookstore. I remember going there in the muggy heat of a Philadelphia summer, with the windows open and fans on, perusing the treasures on the wire shelves, trying to decide which to buy. Eventually I bought and read them all.
A special treat was a trip downtown to Leary’s Bookstore. This old store, unfortunately long gone now, contained thousands of books. Down in the basement were the paperbacks. Since it was a rare pilgrimage for my parents to go downtown to center city—we took the train—I was permitted to purchase several books at a time. Afterward we went to lunch at Bookbinders Restaurant, and I would sneak a peak at the cover art and back cover blurbs of my new books during lunch. It was at Leary’s, surrounded by books, that I came to the realization that no matter how many books I read, there would always be more to read. Reading could entertain me my whole life.
You shouldn’t assume that I was unusually introverted as a child and spent all my time reading. I played outside, watched TV, went to school and did my homework like other kids. There wasn’t as much to do back in those days as there is now: three channels on TV, only one TV (black and white) that my parents monopolized at night, though it was mine to monopolize on Saturday morning. There were board games but no video games. No mobile phones. No social media. Books were a solace and an escape. They still are. Book stores have always been sanctuaries to me, though less so now, with the loss of independent stores, and chains that sell more toys than books. I have mixed feeling about Amazon and ebooks, but that’s a story for another post.
My reading branched out with maturity. My science fiction evolved from the “hard science” stories of Asimov, Clarke, and Niven to the droll works of Jack Vance and the social commentary of Philip K. Dick. I grew to appreciate the poetry of Thomas Hardy’s prose, the urbane wit of James Branch Cabell, and the darkness of the Brontë sisters. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I learned 19th century history from Harry Flashman and George MacDonald Fraser. I read everything from the pulps to philosophy. I am not a particulary fast reader, but I am steady. Recently, having studied French since retirement, I have had the joy of reading books by the father of science fiction, Jules Verne, in the original French.
As I realized long ago in Leary’s Bookstore, I know that there will always be for all practical purposes an infinite number of books left to read. This makes me both happy and sad at the same time.