SOME YEARS AGO, when the house in which I'd been born, grown up and eventually left was about to be sold, my mother asked that I go through my things in the attic, a dimly lighted place filled with the family detritus of years; an old sewing machine, a fisherman's hip boots, rods and reels, gun cases, a broken Victrola and stacks of old 78 records, a chest full of once stylish women's shoes, collections of butterflies and birds' and wasps' nests, cartons of holiday ornaments, drawers full of old photographs of formidable looking women mostly, in long black dresses, a child's roll-top desk from the Christmas I came down with measles and had to spend the holiday in the dark, and a horde of other used and broken objects rife with memories from my childhood, including the rocker in the shape of a swan I'd always hated.
And so one hot August afternoon I found myself confronting that childhood with the help of a bare light bulb suspended from the rafters. Much of what I found in those trunks and cartons I neither remember nor care about, and most - like the heavy whittled slingshot I did care about, a relic of the summer I spent trying to ping squirrels from the porch roof - have long since disappeared. But some have not, and even if they were to vanish in the smoke they would remain as vivid to me, as much an ineradicable part of me, as the cool and quiet rooms of that house, wiich is, in its present state, unrecognizable as mine. Such is the mystery of the word, for what has remained with me are the books I was given and read in the brown silk chair that I remained faithful to as it moved, fraying, from living room, to sunlit guest room, to upstairs hall. The chair, too, is gone, but I know exactly where the books are located - in an old farmhouse on the coast of Maine, quietly mildewing, probably. Where they live, though, is in my head.
Fingerfins, A Tale of the Sargasso Sea, with its exotic drawings in sepia and aquamarine; Sigrid Undset's Happy Times in Norway in the beautiful Borzoi binding from Knopf that felt so good to the tough; Lands and Peoples, a Grolier Society set that made me want to be an archeologist or an anthropologist; the Book of Knowledge that made me want to be an astronomer; a book about Buffalo Bill that made me a cowboy and a book about the Navajos that made me an Indian and a book about the Gaspe that made me French-Canadian; the Torn Swift books that turned my attention to inventing and the Hardy Boys that turned it to adventuring; The Little Engine That Could, and many other: The Yearling, Bambi, Robinson, Crusoe, Treasure Island . . .There were, now that I think of it, a lot of them, and comic books, too - the wild kind that, like television today, weren't supposed to be good for you, not the Classic Comics that were thought instructive but were mostly boring.
There were quite a few adult books in that house as well. My early reading was almost totally undirected - quite the best thing about it - except when my father discovered me with Anthony Adverse when I was 12 or 13 and told me to put it back on the shelf. He firmly believed that there were some things we were better off not knowing - until it was too late - because these things were sure to harm us in some indefinable way. I suppose he felt the way I did when I found my 11-year-old daughter reading The Godfather , and probably she continued reading it, too. In any case I scrutinized Anthony Adverse for the revelations that were sure to come, that would unveil the secrets of the adult world (and there seemed to be a lot of secrets). I never found the revelations or unveiled the secrets - still haven't, and reading only deepens the mystery - but I did figure out what was on my father's mind. And I learned a lesson, which I pass on to every kid within earshot: keep your reading to yourself; your parents might not be old enough to handle it.
When the books at home failed, or grew too familiar, or just didn't seem interesting, there was always the public library, a granite edifice built but not paid for, I later discovered, by my grandfather, a shadowy figure who had lain for many years in a cemetery in the far West, far away from his wife who resided with my other unknown forbears under the pines in the local Protestant graveyard. The librarian was a lady with a withered hand whose name was Miss Alice Clapp. She always wore blue, she always whispered, and she looked as if she had arrived around the turn of the century with the library itself. But she never commented on my reading - I was for a time addicted to violence and bloodshed and she never suggested that certain other books might be more "worthwhile." She just stamped the card and passed the books across the gleaming mahogany counter, and for that I am grateful to her. I'm also grateful to my parents who, forgiving the exceptional case like Anthony Adverse , made few attempts to guide my reading.
That, it seems to me, is the way it ought to be, for the pleasure of the text, as the French critic Roland Barthes calls it, is as private a pleasure as it is real and altogether liberating. A book lets us go backward and forward within the very confines of the book, giving us time and space to think and reflect, to let our imaginations roam, to daydream. (I have a lot of respect for daydreaming and other time-wasting activities.) We can also put the book down and do something else, with the assurance that it will be there when - and if - we're ready to go back to it. It's a lot harder to do that with television, and the commercial breaks aren't long enough. Television restricts the imagination precisely because it is totally visible - everything flashes before us on the small screen, pulling us onward to the next event, or pseudo-event until, numbed we switch off the set, and then it is lost. Of course, everything is not there on the video screen; it just purports to be. That is the nature of the medium.
A book is different. Reading is active, for one thing, and television passive - somebody else has done the work. But when we read our minds fill in the details. Our imaginations sketch the scene, the furnishing of the room, the poses of the characters. We hear the sounds of their voices in our inner ear, and we see them with our mind's eye, and that interior sight and sound can be as vivid as the real objects within our grasp - often more vivid.
That is the true pleasure of the text, and it is the pleasure I found, and can recall at will, that afternoon when I lingered in the attic, a child again, and was transported to the Sargasso Sea and the mountains of Norway.