Shortly after my parents were married, their first argument was about reading. With an $18-a-week income as a sales clerk in Alburgh, Vermont, my father was spending up to $4 a week on magazines and books. My mother managed to curb his spending, but neither curbed their love for the written word.
My parents were first-generation Americans, with three out of four of my grandparents Jewish Lithuanian immigrants. Children of the Depression, economic reality squelched any hopes for education beyond high school. My parents compensated for their lack of opportunity with a legacy of literature: books, magazines, newspapers, and frequent trips to the libraries in the small towns in Vermont and upstate New York where they raised their four children.
As a result, my siblings and I grew up in a house full of books. Two rooms had floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with novels, second-hand encyclopedias, and American Heritage anthologies. I remember sitting on my mother’s lap as she read Golden Books to me. Birthdays and holidays always meant new books: The Wizard of Oz, Shirley Temple’s Story Book, and, in later years, the latest Nancy Drew mystery which my father would purchase in New York City on his business trips.
When the books in our house weren’t enough, I walked to the small but well-stocked library around the corner from our house in Keeseville. An early reader, I soon graduated from the six-foot bookshelf stuffed with picture books like The Cat in the Hat and Curious George and moved onto the twelve-foot high shelves with more challenging books. Pippi Longstocking and Alice in Wonderland were followed by Helen Keller’s autobiography and The Good Earth.
It was no surprise, then, that my four years of college focused on literature. I spent hours reading, discussing, and analyzing Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, and Hemingway. My literature courses were not work. They were an academic extension of those leisurely afternoons in the green lounge chair.
When I met Larry, one of the first qualities we found that we had in common was our interest in reading. His first gift to me was a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose; my first gift to him was Thoreau’s Cape Cod.
As our parents did before us, Larry and I passed this legacy on to our own children. Bedtime was always a time for us to introduce them to our childhood friends—Francis the Badger, Amelia Bedelia, and Ramona the Brave—and meet new ones, including the Berenstein Bears, Corduroy, and Sylvester and his magic pebble. Books filled their shelves, and they got library cards as soon as they could write their own names. Adam became immersed in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; Julie in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and Jane Austen. Our conversations with our children still include discussions of books we are reading. Now that we are grandparents, our special times include reading to them–Ramona for our granddaughter; Go Dog Go and anything with trucks for our grandson–whether in person or on FaceTime.
Those conversations have also been with friends. For thirty-four years, I was a member of a monthly book club in Upstate New York. The members of the group changed over the years as people moved away or had other commitments. The format, however, remained the same. Taking turns meeting in each other’s homes, we spent the first half hour socializing in the living room. We then moved to the dining room, where we discussed future book recommendations and scheduling over beverages and too many desserts—at least one had to have chocolate— candy, nuts, and fruit. Then we began our discussion about the pre-determined book of the month.
The fiction and non-fiction we read reflected the stages of our lives. Books on raising children gave way to those on balancing work and family to dealing with aging parents to our own retirements. We often chose best-selling and/or critically acclaimed fiction and non-fiction. With some help from discussion questions from Reading Group Guides, the group took time to weigh in on our opinion of the selection. We all loved Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto; we all struggled through Annie Proulx’s Shipping News.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love literally split the table: One side thought the author was an irresponsible witch; the other side admired her independence and courage.
The means with which we read our selections also evolved over the years. The hardcover and paperback books were replaced with audio books and electronic readers. My personal favorite, a reflection of my aging eyes, was anything in large print. No matter what the selection or the means, the discussions were lively, the food was plentiful, and the pleasure of spending an evening with fellow readers was immeasurable. Once I retired, I doubled my pleasure by joining Clifton Park’s Hadassah Book Club.
Saying good-bye to my book clubs when I moved to Florida was one of my hardest tasks. Not surprisingly, I immediately joined a new book club. The women in Book Babes have helped make my transition to Florida easier, as I again enjoying the company of bright, articulate women who love to read and to discuss good literature. The pandemic has had its perks: thanks to Zoom, I have “rejoined” my Upstate New York Hadassah book club. Most recently, the group chose Fradel’s Story, a book I wrote with my mother. Having the chance to discuss questions I had written and getting feedback from my friends gave me–and hopefully them–so much pleasure!
Dr. Seuss wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” So hundreds, maybe thousands of books later, I continue to grow from the legacy that was given to me by my parents and that I have shared with my family and friends. So many books, so little time! But what a good time I am having!
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.