THE GREATEST READER I’ve ever known devoured anything with words on or in it, from oatmeal boxes to tractor manuals to dense and bewildering tomes by Joyce and Faulkner.
One day in 1978, the great reader — my mom — checked out an autobiography by gossip columnist Rona Barrett. She curled up on the couch— as a no-airs family living in the southern Oregon hills, we never called it a sofa. After 20 minutes she said, “Oh, this is good.”
“Who’s Rona Barrett?” I asked.
“Hell if I know.”
The great reader missed a lot of school with my grandma and grandpa McQuade moving all the time in the 1930s and ’40s. They trekked from Wisconsin to Washington to California and back north to Central Point, Oregon, where my mom went to high school. She dropped out her senior year, 1949.
That’s too bad because my mom said she liked school. After learning to read, anyway. She never quite forgave the Dick and Jane authors for their sins against conversational English. “I hated all that ‘See Dick. See Dick run’ crap,” she said for the first of about 90 times in 1967, when I was six. I’m not sure she said “crap,” but that’s the kind of word she would’ve used.
“This is better,” she said, referring to the Dr. Seuss book she was reading me. It could have been Green Eggs and Ham or maybe Horton Hears a Who. She checked out all the Dr. Seuss books and read them to me at one time or another. “There’s imagination here. I like the rhymes, too. Don’t you?”
My mom made story time interactive — always. She couldn’t read out loud without saying “ooh!” and “whaddaya think of that?” and “what the hell?” Reading to herself, she often stopped to share some passage, or complain about it. Or yell about it.
“This is terrible!” she screeched one day in 1970, bursting into my bedroom with a book of fairy tales in her right hand. “Have you read it? The mermaid story?” She must have interpreted my startled silence to mean “not yet” because she took a short breath and said, “It’s the worst story ever. This mermaid gets legs and it’s like walking on knives. Then she dies.” My mom paused, staring while I sat on my bed, wondering what to say. Then in a calmer voice she said, “You can read it if you want. Some parts are really good.”
My mom was never big on censorship. Once in sixth grade she caught me trying to sneak a Playboy magazine under my blue down coat to school. I got all upset and embarrassed and cried but she said, “No, no, no, it’s OK, Billy, it’s natural, boys like to look at naked women.” Looking back, I’m glad she stopped me, only I wish she hadn’t said “naked women.” For a while, every erotic thought that flitted across my prepubescent brain was accompanied by her voice saying, It’s OK to daydream about naked women, Billy. Talk about a mood killer.
She actually said nekkid women, not naked, which is how we talked in my family. My mom and dad and brother and sister (I had one of each) and I pronounced “creek” crik and “wash” warsh and no one ever said “doesn’t” — it was always don’t as in “he don’t know what’s he’s doin’.” I noticed none of this until one day my fifth-grade teacher scratched the word “wash” on the blackboard and asked us one by one to pronounce it. I was the one who said “warsh.”
That evening I told my mom, “You know how we say warsh? Most people say wash.” My mom puffed up and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I always say wash.” Which struck me as funny, especially when a little while later she said, “Billy, it’s your turn to warsh the dishes tonight.”
While a down-to-earth person (appropriately, her favorite novel was The Good Earth), my mom could get touchy about perceived slights about her background or education. Maybe that’s why she tackled so many hard-to-read classics. When I reached my late teens and dragged a Faulkner novel home, either for a class or for my own self-torture, she’d pick it up and read it all the way through, no matter how much endurance it took.
“I don’t even know what’s going on here,” she complained while reading what must have been the stream-of-consciousness Benjy chapter in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Me: “Then stop reading it.”
Mom: “I can’t. I’ve got to know how it ends.”
We continually handed books to each other, much to my benefit. My mom’s capacity for reading anything in print resulted in a few clunkers that I abandoned after a few pages, but I discovered more delights than duds, including Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, a whole bunch of Steinbeck (she loved Steinbeck), and a coming-of-age book about a black kid in Harlem called Manchild in the Promised Land.
It’s funny that my mom, a farm girl from Wisconsin, would enjoy a book about an African American slum boy growing up amid thieves, prostitutes, and junkies. Even funnier is that she offered that book, with all its sex and violence and rough language, to her supremely naïve twelve-year-old son. Not that I minded. I read it once, and then zipped through it again a month or two later.
When I was thirteen or so, she tossed me an even more provocative book. My mom had a habit of frequenting yard sales and buying stacks of popular paperbacks for a dime or a quarter apiece. She’d read them in a hurry, and sometimes pass them on to me.
“This isn’t bad,” she said one of those times, flipping me a fat paperback titled The Adventurers. Sounded like a book about pirates or cowboys or soldiers of fortune. I picked it up, scanned a few pages, and closed my bedroom door. After a dozen more pages, I locked my bedroom door. Characters in that book were getting busy, in graphic detail, at every turn!
The Adventurers introduced me to Harold Robbins, the man who, according to the title of a 2007 biography by Andrew Wilson, “invented sex.”
There’s a benefit, I think, to my mom’s read-anything-and-everything attitude. It’s easy to get locked in on certain authors and genres and reject everything out of your comfort level. Like the graphic designer I knew in San Diego who only read books by female authors. “But you read some male authors, sometimes, right?” I asked. “No,” she said.
My mom took the opposite approach, devouring books that challenged and sometimes baffled her to the day she fell into a coma-like state from lung cancer in 2011. In her last wakeful days, the greatest reader I’ve ever known was poring over the Quran, not for religious insight to the afterlife but because, as she said, “I always wanted to know what Islam is really all about.”
That was my mom. Still reading, and still striving to learn, even on her deathbed.