One of the things about this Daily Kos series that has always intrigued me -- aside from the daunting title -- is the dichotomy I've always perceived between the impact of books as texts (i.e. the reading of them and the meanings, experiences and sensations that they trigger) and the impact of books as objects in our lives. Most of the time folks writing about books that have changed their lives tend to focus on the books as text piece: what the reading of this book has meant.
A recent exhibit at a local gallery that I stumbled across one Saturday afternoon, however, put me back into a memory place about how a handful of books in our shared childhood library played a role in mine and my sisters' lives beyond the simple of reading of those books. And I thought I'd take the opportunity to think through that a little bit more deeply here this morning.
My purpose today isn't to describe the exhibit (it was fun and thought-provoking certainly, especially as I consider the hyper-commercialization of the Seuss brand in recent years), but it drew my attention not so much to the narratives of the stories, or to the experience of reading them, but to the place that those books had in my childhood and in my son's and his cousins' childhoods, too.
Being made aware so directly of the link between the stories, the illustrations and a set of actual objects that inspired so much of it (including one entire book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and yes, that Errol Flynn Robin Hood hat was part of the collection,) set me off remembering how my sisters and I had played with those books as props and tools throughout our childhood.
Like so many kids of the middle class and those aspiring to it, our home contained a set of the Dr. Seuss readers: the 8.5"x 11" format hard back books produced for small hands and beginning readers or pre-readers. I am old enough that I don't believe Scholastic had been the distributor back in the day of the early 1960's. But 50+ years forward, that's who publishes and distributes those same volumes in the US today.
While these were not the books my mother first taught me to read with (that honor was reserved for the tattered volume of Fun with Dick and Jane, circa 1944 that my paternal grandmother gifted us with; it was the book from which my father had learned to read as a child and my grandmother, ever the sentimental parent of an only child, had saved it for her grandchildren), they were the books we we used to hone and perfect those reading skills. For me as the eldest child and the first reader, I could practice by reading the stories to my younger siblings. This soon gave way to using the books whenever we would play "school". Because they were uniform in format they made excellent prototypes for textbooks, and thus were the inside flaps of each of them peppered with very childlike scrawls of "English" or "Spelling" or "History" or "Math", written and re-written, scratched out and challenged as each of us sought to stake a claim and also practice our handwriting.
Years later when my eldest nephews were born, my mother passed those same volumes complete with the textbook labels inside, onto my sister whose boys used those books to learn to and practice their own reading skills. Those volumes didn't last through until my son was born and ready for books (they'd been through seven different kids and their friends by then), but the first book purchase I made for my newborn son was the Scholastic set of Seuss readers, having remembered them as tokens of childhood.
Those books did change my life, quite literally, in some pretty distinct ways: they taught me not only to practice reading, but what the currency of books as objects could mean. They taught me to be a bossy older sister (the contest for who among us would be the teacher was always an exciting part of the game, and no, I didn't always win that one), for I was the one who always checked the labels inside, always wanted to compare the handwriting, to match the color of the book or the topic of the story to the proper school subject. Green Eggs and Ham, it seemed to me, needed always to be the Health textbook. But my sister A insisted it should be spelling, because her spelling books were orange. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, was the easy shoo-in for the Math text, but we never quite knew what to do with Hop on Pop.
Of course, these didn't include the larger format, longer stories which we eventually grew into and came to prefer over the beginning readers. Those are the volumes that speak to me as stories, rather than as objects. To this day, The Grinch who Stole Christmas remains a pop culture experience that will reduce me to tears every time his heart grows 3 times that day. And that book is a staple, not only of my son's childhood, but of our family Holiday Celebrations. I suppose if I had to pick a favorite Dr. Seuss story, that would be it. But even my experience of that is shaped by something greater than the book.
Those simple format readers still resonate for the utility of the object and the play we could make of reading and writing. Hard to scribble inside an e-book you know, and watch your children laugh over your own messy scribbles that you left for them to find some twenty years later.