Think back to the earliest books in your life. They were the ones held in the hands of others and read aloud.
Only phrases come back to me, like “Run, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.” Henny Penny, Ducky Wucky, and Goosey Loosey were part of the cast. The Dick and Jane books featured a dog called Spot. The literary style was simple: “Dick ran. Jane ran. Spot ran.”
When we kids could both read and hold the books ourselves, the school library came into focus for its never-ending supply. I was eager, and would check out so many books that when I returned them, the lady in charge instructed me to tell her the story of each one, wondering if I read them or just enjoyed choosing them.
Next came something called Big Little Books. These were fat little volumes about 4 by 4 inches, with a very thick spine, a size easy for young hands. Inside, the text was on the left-hand page with an illustration taking up the right side. In early years, the pictures were in black and white (the 1930s), later in color as these popular little books continued on into the 1960s.
The stories came from radio programs (like “The Shadow”), comic strips (“The Gumps,” “Dick Tracy” or “Li’l Abner”), children’s books (“Uncle Wiggily”) or movies (“Bambi”). Mickey Mouse, Alley Oop, Tarzan, and Captain Midnight all found their way into these fat little books. They could be read under the covers after lights out, with the help of a flashlight.
Next came the Nancy Drew mysteries. It was assumed someone named Carolyn Keene was the author of the series, featuring the courageous and clever Nancy, her female friends George and Bess and boyfriend Ned Nickerson.
Not long ago it came out that many writers wrote the series and no such person as Carolyn Keene existed. She was a creation of the publishers, who kept the series going for many years. More recently, new volumes have appeared with updated themes and settings, such as a rock concert and a contemporary high school. Certain outdated and racist themes have been omitted to make the series palatable for today.
My love of mysteries continued in adulthood. I especially enjoy British authors P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. Short story collections have been favorites, too, and for a time I hoped writing those would be my career. Seventeen magazine published one of my stories in its teen authors category. But it soon became clear that journalism was the choice for me. I could earn a living doing what I liked — writing plus reading.
After a series of lengthy assignments during the senior year of college, I was named a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New York – big excitement for a girl from the West Coast. Once there I was an assistant to the fiction editor, who was the sister of author Carson McCullers. Among the fiction editor’s friends were Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. To her they were “Tenn” and “Tru” — fellow southerners.
I didn’t yet know their works, but some of Williams’ plays (“The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,””The Rose Tattoo,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) are still among my most vivid theatre-going memories. And as many times as I have seen it, just the thought of the movie of Capote’s ”A Christmas Memory” with Julie Harris touches my heart.
My job at Mademoiselle was to read the “over the transom” submissions of short stories, meaning ones that came from the general public rather than a literary agent. A job that let me read for hours a day seemed a dream come true.
My kindly editor included me in a dinner at her home where the two other guests were Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal. No wonder I felt I had the plum assignment! Gore Vidal had already written a best-selling novel and Bradbury some science fiction short stories, although his classic “Fahrenheit 451” was still to come.
Working for various magazines and newspapers has always entailed lots of reading along with writing assignments. But I read outside of work, too. Being a longtime member of a book group has meant exposure to authors from many countries and eras. This year’s choice of “Anna Karenina” late in life made me appreciate the richness of Tolstoy’s prose and be grateful to be introduced to it.
Many of us are not happy unless a good book is at hand, and I am one of them. Summer is here and now I’d like to latch on to a real page-turner of a thriller!