The Oldest Living Book Lover Tells All

Part One On Reading

Q: When did you start reading?

A: I was so young my older sisters had to hold the books for me, but I was never a lap reader, never a loungey reader, not one to lie about in bed, for example. I am up in my chair by the south window, reading when the sun comes up, and when the sun goes down. I bring some dignity to the act, some respect for the craft, and the art on all those involved in the transmission of ideas from one brain to another.

My sisters were good readers too, but they weren’t as adventurous as I. They started from their interests and worked out a tiny bit. I started by the door and worked my way through to the other side. That took most of my childhood and then I started over again. We had a small library that doubled as the town hall, which meant the administrative offices were in the basement, along with the only pubic washroom, and the mayor’s office, such as it was, was above the library in a small nook that later, when a real town hall was built, became the place where most of us had our first sexual encounters. In the flesh, I mean.

The church was built of wood and not much older than I was. It was painted white with green trim right along the peaked roof. It had the only stone steps in town, and an iron railing in the center leading elegantly up to the church-like doors. There was a coppery old fire extinguisher by the door, and a hissy radiator that made you think tea was always about to arrive. The new books were displayed on a dark oak shelf by the door where the umbrella stand held one single black umbrella my entire childhood. Boots piled up in the winter, and bits of sand trailed through in the summer, the lights went up around the windows in the winter, and came down in the summer, and so on. They were all there: Dickens, Smollet, Montaigne, Sterne, Austen, Pope, Dryden, Shakespeare, Swift–I didn’t care for the children’s versions of Gulliver’s Travels which I found offensive in the extreme–Emerson, Fielding, Twain, James–I remember when I got to James, I was myself, a length of rope and I felt my spine align, strengthen, and somehow expected to be called Sir when I came back to the library the next day, but instead I got the chicken pox and spent the Halloween season in bed.

I was the youngest reader ever in the history of our town which was so small that in truth isn’t remarkable but you cling to what accomplishments you can in this life, and I was the librarian’s pet. I started reading when sentences were so long you had to sometimes check your pulse before you got to the end. Sure, sure, they were paid by the penny, but we weren’t paid to read. I didn’t like that period so much, but it was a nice base to work with.

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