Books were scarce in my childhood. I don’t remember having stories read to me as a toddler, or owning any books myself in the earlier years. At first, I thought this was because reading wasn’t valued, but that wasn’t entirely the case. The fact is that money was also scant, so there wasn’t much opportunity to bring books into our home.
My mother was an ex-teacher who craved books. When I was in primary school, she joined a mail-order book club and purchased one book each month for about three years. She had one small bookcase, and now, as an adult, I realise she cancelled her subscription when the shelves were full.
Her books regularly enticed me to sit on the cold linoleum in the alcove between the hallway and the bathroom, reading the spines and wishing I was old enough to understand the stories on their pages. I revered the royal colours with embossed gold writing, and their solid presence. My grandmother’s books drew me to them in the same way when we visited her.
My childhood reading was largely restricted to occasional library books when I was able to get someone to take me to select them, and the comics in the Sunday newspapers. My desire to read was so great that, when I had access to these books and comics, I’d lie in the sun on the back verandah for hours and read them over and over.
One morning when I was about eight, I took my parents a cup of tea before they were up and about. I sat on the edge of their bed, inhaling the warmth of a togetherness that was rare in our household. The stillness shifted when Mum said, ‘Kate, hop up and get that shoebox from the top of the cupboard for me.’ I dragged a chair in from the sleep-out and then collected an old newspaper from the laundry where it lay waiting to light the kitchen stove or the fire under the copper. I covered the seat of the wooden chair with the paper and stepped up onto it to reach for the box. A headline caught my eye and I was lost to everything else.
I don’t remember what I was reading about, but after a while Mum said, ‘Come on Kate. I want to look in the box before I get up.’
I wrenched myself away from the article and realised I had my arms folded against the wardrobe with the top of my head pushing into them, and I’d been reading the news spread between my feet on the chair. I grabbed the box and handed it to Mum.
Hope flooded my chest when she said to Dad, ‘We ought to get her some books to read.’
‘Books?’ he said. ‘Reading stories won’t get her anywhere. She’s got her school books. They’ll teach her sums and spelling… that’s all she needs.’
The subject was closed… the magic broken… my hopes dashed.
Years later, another bookcase appeared in the lounge room. It housed a set of World Book Encyclopedia for the younger children. Dad acquired these books through his new part-time role as salesman for the company, but they were too late to satisfy my childhood thirst for reading material and knowledge.
When my grandmother died, her bookcase became the third one in my parents’ home. It soon overflowed as Mum’s ‘library’ grew with birthday and Christmas gifts from all of us, to make up for the years she’d managed with just a few books.
Were books scarce or abundant in your childhood?
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