ALSO BY SEAN MANNING
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When I was nine years old I had my wonderful Aunt Neva living above me in our house in Waukegan, Illinois. She was my constant companion. Being only eleven years older than myself, she was more a sister than an aunt. She surrounded me with books and miniature theaters that she built and paintings that she painted. Neva allowed me to prowl around her studio where she designed and made costumes and dresses, and where she worked in clay or talked mad talk and encouraged me to do the same.
Halloween was greater than July 4th, almost greater than Christmas on our block, mainly because of Neva. She would dress me up as a witch, putting wax on my nose to make it look big and crooked, and pour candle-tallow on my fingers to turn them into witch's hands, and hide me in basements or attics to scare friends she brought in.
Every October we'd drive far out in the farm country and bring home a Tin Lizzie full of pumpkins and cornshooks from which to decorate. Neva's craziness about October infected me. A story like my "Homecoming" derives mainly from the way Neva looked at October and its ghosts and haunts.
Some Halloweens she put out all the lights in the big house and made us file in one at a time in our spook costumes, following a long ceiling-hung guideline of kite string through the rooms. The stairs going up to the attic and down to the basement were covered with partitions from the dining room table so you had to slide down these homemade chutes into darkness. Neva would vanish and reappear in various disguises during the night. There was always a beast in the basement waiting to eat you, or a monster in the attic creaking the boards, hoping for leftovers.
At around the same time I was madly in love with Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and wanted to put on a play about it. Neva cut out a paper outfit, along with a cap, and attached a pig-tail and put it on me so that I became Aladdin.
It was the Depression and we had no money. But we had books at hand. One afternoon Neva brought out a huge volume that weighed ten pounds. It was Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. I had never heard of Poe and had never seen that book. She handed it to me and said, "Young man, read this! You're going to love it. I've loved Poe all my life and now it's up to you. Lug it over to that table and open it up."
I lugged it over to the table and opened up that huge book and looked at the stories. By pure accident I turned to the page with "The Cask of Amontillado." I plunged in and got drunk immediately. I was nine years old and had never read anything like it; I fell in love completely with Edgar Allan Poe.
When I finished this story I read it again and then turned back through the book to find "The Fall of the House of Usher." The same experience happened. When Usher fell, I fell with it. I next read "The Tell-Tale Heart." For that entire day I could hardly stay away from that book. I spent eight hours reading from it and love filled my heart.
In the following weeks I read more and more Poe stories, including "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Black Cat." All these stories influenced me, one after another, so that they filled my imagination. Later in my life, when I wrote The Martian Chronicles, I added the story "Usher II," because of my belief in literature. Books were being burned all over the world so I wrote "Usher II" in response and it became part of my history, leading up to my writing Fahrenheit 451.
Not only did Neva introduce me to Poe, but before that she introduced me to Alice in Wonderland and used to read the Oz books to me, which of course became a huge part of my life. When my book The Golden Apples of the Sun was published, I dedicated it to her, writing: "To Neva, daughter of Glinda the Good Witch."
Neva studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, and often took me there. I was amazed at everything I saw. She was the one who took me to the Chicago Century of Progress Fair in 1933. That fair made me want to grow up to be an architect. When I found out that they were going to tear down the exhibit two years later, I told Neva that I wanted to rebuild the fair. She took me home and helped me to rebuild it in the backyard. I knew that someday I'd be an architect and build worlds of the future. (Part of this came true when I helped design the top floor of the United States Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.)
All this because my Aunt Neva encouraged me and influenced me and loved me. She was a true artist. I can never say enough about her. I turn ninety this year. All of these memories are still strong in me. But the strongest still is my remembrance of that wonderful Poe book that she introduced me to all those years ago.
When Neva passed away a few years ago she left that book to me. I remember picking it up, lugging it over to a table, and opening it, saying, "Where are you, 'Cask of Amontillado'? Your friend is here. I want to read you."
And so I read "The Cask of Amontillado" again, for the first time in decades. In doing this I looked back and saw just how much Poe influenced me to be a writer. Because of him I wrote my first stories for Weird Tales. Last year, the post office came out with the Poe stamp and I ended up buying five hundred of them! I put Poe on all of my mail.
So you see how my Aunt Neva and Tales of Mystery and Imagination changed my life. I'm glad to preface this book to tell you how love of real books can change yours.
Look, I'm not going to say I'm not completely blown away by the cutting-edge technology of e-Readers, or that the first time I played around with the Kindle and iPad and Nook I wasn't totally geeking out. Because I am, I was. It's just that, to me, one of the best parts of reading, one of the things that hooked me—aside from Pizza Hut's "Book It!" elementary school program and my quest to help win my third-grade homeroom a pizza party—is the tactile sensation of turning a page, the sight of my bookmark inching along night after night, getting closer and closer to the finish, then finally closing the book, hearing that whomp, turning it over in my hands, feeling the weight of it, the sense of accomplishment that brings.
You don't get that pushing the buttons or tapping the screen of an e-Reader. You don't need a bookmark. Which, if you ask me, is one of the devices' biggest shortcomings: What are you supposed to do with your postcards and boarding passes, your concert and movie and sporting event stubs, your love notes and flower petals, funeral prayer cards and laminated obituaries?
But then that's ultimately what books themselves are—mementos, keepsakes, mile markers in one's life. Look at the titles in your e-Reader's "Library" folder. What's the most you remember about them? How long each took to download? When I glance at my shelves, I see not just multicolored rows of spines but cities where I traveled and resided, classes I took, jobs I worked, people I loved and who loved me. I see myself through the years and across the many stages of my life—my varying confidence and insecurity, ever-changing hopes and fears, all I thought I knew and still had yet to learn.
Whether it's Joyce Maynard on her father's Bible or Jonathan Miles on his mother's copy of Ship of Fools, Anthony Doerr on the short story anthology that kept him company while backpacking in New Zealand or Anthony Swofford on the copy of The Stranger he carried while soldiering in the Persian Gulf, Louis Ferrante on the edition of Les Misérables that helped him endure prison or Shahriar Mandanipour on the copy of Das Kapital that nearly landed him there (or worse), Sigrid Nunez or Rabih Alameddine on their irretrievable paperback versions of Mythology and The Carpetbaggers, Michael Ruhlman or Terrence Holt on the texts that launched their respective careers in food writing and medicine, Julia Glass on one of the first books she ever read or Jim Knipfel on the last—the authors gathered here share this appreciation for the mnemonic power of good old-fashioned books. And if you're holding this one in your hands, you likely do, too.
Now turn the page.
The Crying of Lot 49 and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
I have this fantasy of plentitude and then of plentitude whisked away that dates from my childhood. In the summer of 1967 our family went to the World's Fair in Montreal, and back then what I may have loved more than anything else were those intricately hand-painted toy soldiers at which the Europeans excelled. I rarely saw them, because I'd never been to Europe, but I'd glimpsed them every so often on the occasional trip to one of the tonier toy stores in Manhattan. Even those stores tended to carry only a few of them. So I dreamed, when first hearing about our trip to Montreal, of stumbling across some sort of mother lode of unguessed-at riches in that regard.
My desire was fierce enough that when we first got into the city—to save money and provide ourselves with some other attractions, we were staying in one of those knotty-pine cabins on Lake Champlain, and driving the hour back and forth to the Fair—I actually maneuvered my way into a phone booth and talked my father into waiting while I checked the yellow pages for likely toy stores. I even called one or two that sounded plausible, but once they informed me that they weren't within rock-throwing distance of the street corner on which I stood, it became clear that my father wasn't going to, as he put it, drive all over the god-damned city looking for them.
In fact, he'd shied away from even driving into the city—who knew what kind of exotic street signs or miserable traffic he'd encounter?—and had parked at one of the Fair's designated outer lots, served by the city's Metro system.
So there we were, on our way home on the Metro after a long day's Fair-going, riding dully along, when suddenly at God knew what stop I looked up through the car's doors to see the dazzlingly lit and glittering toy store of my dreams. Rows upon rows of tiny, hand-painted figures, and not just the usual Napoleonic types but also Romans and Vikings and Greeks! I floated from the car in the direction of that amazing display window. I stood before it for some impossibly short amount of time. And then my father, who'd been shouting for me in an impressive panic, finally got my attention. He was in the Metro car's doorway, holding the doors open. He continued shouting until I got the idea and ducked back under his arm and into the car again.
What the Christ had I thought I was doing, he wanted to know for the next few stops. It was only then that I revived and asked frantically what stop that had been. Of course he didn't know. And then we came to our stop, and he hustled me out onto the platform.
It probably goes without saying that I never found the place again. On all my subsequent trips on the Metro, I stayed glued to my window each way and still never saw it. None of my family had seen it in the first place, as focused as they'd been on my apparent decision to get myself lost in Montreal's Underground. Were we now somehow on a different line? Had it all been a hallucination? Your guess is as good as mine. It remained in my psyche, though, as an example of how the world worked: There were amazing things out there, and every so often they appeared, in order to be all the more quickly swept away.
Two of the compensations for having accepted a tenure-track job way out in the woods of northwestern Massachusetts, I decided, were that first, and nearly instantly, I could get a dog, and second, and more gradually, I could start to collect hardcover—better—copies of those books I loved. Like most people just out of graduate school, I had a library that consisted almost entirely of paperbacks that were beat to shit, to use the technical term.
This was of course before Alibris or Amazon or any sort of Internet shopping, which meant that the only place to find a hardcover book that was not brand new was either by mail order, which seemed to me a course reserved for shut-ins, or in used book stores.
I met a new friend who was dweeby enough to have compiled a list of all the used book stores in a four- or five-hour radius, and we started hitting those places on road trips. It was a lot of fun—we'd usually end up in some ptomaine palace of a diner on the way home—but we were very quickly struck by how often we came across the same books, and how rarely we scored one of the books on our Most Wanted lists.
Every so often we'd check out such places alone, as well, and at one point it transpired that I was driving with my mother to Manhattan, and though my friend couldn't go, he had pointed out that I'd be passing right by a bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson about which he'd heard excellent things.
It was easy to locate and looked promising at first but then nothing in particular materialized, in terms of finds. A few somewhat interesting things, but nothing I hadn't seen before. I was drifting into the nonfiction aisles in that vaguely disappointed way I would when a bookstore hadn't worked out, in the hopes that I'd still score something weird in some unexpected subcategory, when my mother, who almost never went into bookstores (I was the first in my family to go to college, and outside of work, she and my father almost never read anything other than stop signs), figured she might as well speak up for her son, since she knew her son wouldn't speak up for himself. She asked the guy behind the counter if he knew he had an author in the store.
My mother was born in southern Italy and has a voice like Anna Magnani, so even in the nonfiction section I heard her and cringed. I was cringing because I knew why she was bringing this up. Once it was established that I was an author, she was going to ask if that qualified me for some kind of discount. Everybody in the world was getting a free handout on something except her family, she believed.
"Oh really?" the guy said, polite but uninterested. "What's his name?"
My mother told him. It turned out that he was a fan, which was startling. Back then, pretty much unprecedented.
She led him to me. He shook my hand, told me how much he'd loved my third novel (which had plummeted out of print almost before my closest friends had read it), and asked if I'd sign the two books of mine that were in the store.
While I was signing them, he asked what I was looking for. I told him. He got the kind of look in his eye that Captain Nemo must have gotten when people asked him if he'd ever seen a craft that could sail underwater. "Come with me," he said.
He walked me over to a derelict-looking building across the street. He unlocked the padlock on the door, led me up the stairs and along a corridor, unlocked another padlock on some steel inner doors, and ushered me into a loft that to this day causes my breath to catch when I think back on it.
Extending in all directions were ranks of grey metal storage shelves, head-high and spanning out around me, filled with hardcover books. Think of that famous crane shot at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which we realize that the crated-up Ark is now just a needle in some staggeringly large government haystack of a storage room, and you get the idea. But it got even better: Once he led me to the half of the room that held the fiction and I started heading down the rows, it was that childhood moment from Montreal all over again, only this time without the Metro's doors closing.
I not only immediately spotted pristine hardcover copies of books I'd been hunting for years—Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, J. M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K, and Flannery O'Connor's Collected Stories—but also registered that there were multiple copies of each, as though the store in some gently comic way wanted to flaunt its greatness. On top of that, everything seemed priced to buy: between ten and twenty dollars. After I'd checked and double-checked those merciful numbers, I started making a pile in my arms. Very quickly I started setting my piles down in order to begin new piles. Sometimes I'd put a book back when I found two others that excited me even more. Eventually it got to the point where I thought I absolutely had to stop, even though so many more rows remained to be explored. By the half-assed running tally that I'd been keeping in my head, I figured I was now up to around five hundred dollars.
It turned out to be a little less. And in five shopping bags waiting to be toted out to the car I had thirty-eight hard-to-find and beautiful books. On what I would have previously considered a hugely successful outing to a bookstore such as this, I might have landed only one.
"I certainly hope you're going to give him a discount," my mother told the owner. He knocked off another 20 percent, making her day.
One of those shopping bags held two of the hardcovers for which I'd been searching the longest: William Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Gass's story collection in hardcover was compact and, in its matte-brown dust jacket with muted yellow and orange lettering, appealingly unassuming in a way that was apt and therefore aesthetically satisfying as an object. Pynchon's novel was in some ways even more unassuming in its initial aspect. Whereas the paperback had featured a Peter Max-like cartoon illustration that seemed to want to evoke from five hundred yards The Swinging Psychedelic Sixties, the hardcover offered on its dust jacket a monochromatic image of pavement, graffitied with the loop, triangle, and trapezoid that form the muted post horn of the possible secret society. Which was the more satisfying to hold in my hand? I didn't have to decide. Each had been priced as though I was the one doing the pricing.
I felt, once I'd gotten home, as if I'd rubbed the bottle and been granted thirty-eight wishes. I reread all or at least parts of each of the books, just to feel at leisure the heft of each in my hand. And of course I was very soon anxious to get back to that store. But I was heading into a brutally busy semester. I went back the first time a few months later and the store was closed, for whatever reason, and then one thing led to another and I didn't manage to return until six months or so after that.
You can see where this is going. The storefront was boarded up, the space inside empty. I asked at the local diner and was told that the owner had died and the bookstore had closed. What had happened to all of the books stored across the street? The guy at the diner hadn't known there were books stored across the street. Was there anybody I could reach to talk to about where everything went? The owner's family, the guy guessed. Did any of them live around here? Not that he knew. Did anyone know how to get in touch with them? Not that he knew.
I stood in the middle of the street, my hands on my hips. Yet for all of my disappointment, I wasn't anywhere near as bereft as I'd been in Montreal. Not only because I'd matured—Ha!—but also because in this case I'd been allowed my time inside the charmed circle. I'd carried away all of those beautiful fictions as a result. I'd not only been allowed a glimpse at the entirety of that bounty but I'd been granted my portion, as well, if not more than my portion. That's what the physical object of a book that I love can evoke for me, and that's all anyone can ask.
Andersen's Fairy Tales
One winter day, three years ago, I was overcome by a sudden desire to read, or perhaps just hold in my hands, my childhood copy of Andersen's Fairy Tales. I knew (or thought I knew) that I still owned the book, which against all odds I had somehow managed to keep through adolescence, college, cross-country moves, the long migration from my parents' home to my own, all the usual and particular dislocations and disruptions. But I looked everywhere and couldn't find it.
Being the sort of person who, in cases like this, most often assumes the worst, I searched with rising panic and growing hopelessness, increasingly convinced that the book was gone forever. (I should explain that my library is spread out over two houses and numerous bookcases, which at that time were not arranged in any logical order. The summer before last, I finally organized some of my books according to a system that at least occasionally allows me to locate something.) Certain that the book was gone, I felt the pain one might feel when a cherished keepsake, a ring or watch, the sole remaining memento of a loved one, has, like its original owner, been lost. It hardly seemed possible that something I'd saved for fifty years could have just disappeared, but books have wills of their own. They migrate from room to room, they lend themselves to friends, they fling themselves off a shelf at us when they suspect that we need them. And if a book could vanish, Andersen's Fairy Tales seemed a likely candidate to have mastered that magic trick.
I missed the book more than a keepsake. I grieved for it as if for a person.
How beautiful the Internet is, when we turn to it, as we so often do, in our dark hours of fear and need. Within a few clicks I discovered what my childhood edition of Andersen was. Translated by Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paul, it had been published in 1945, or as the copyright page said, in MCMXLV, as part of Grosset and Dunlap's Illustrated Junior Library series, a collection of handsomely illustrated, inexpensive clothbound books for children that included Aesop's Fables, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Women, and Grimm's Fairy Tales. Alice in Wonderland featured the classic drawings of Tenniel, while Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Kidnapped were illustrated by Lynd Ward, whose picture-narrative books, like the muscular-Deco populist 1929 God's Man, predated the modern graphic novel by half a century.
The Andersen was illustrated by Arthur Szyk. After so many years, I remembered the images with startling clarity, and I knew that my longing for the book had as much to do with the illustrations as with Andersen's text. I wanted the Proustian moment of experiencing once again the effect that had been produced on me by the alchemical combination of the strangeness of the stories and the bright exotic pictures. I wanted to touch the object that I had so often touched as a child.
Though nothing could have consoled me for the loss of my book, it was a comfort that, with a few mouse-clicks more, I discovered that several copies were available, none of them very costly. It seemed like a bargain, a few dollars plus postage, in exchange for the restoration of a missing piece of my life.
I ordered two copies, just in case, one from each of two booksellers.
In a week or so, they arrived, encased in the padded envelopes, the bubble wrap, the unique signature of an individual's consciousness and care that is among the rewards of buying from online sellers of used books, and from eBay.
If the cover was sweetly familiar, with its wheat-colored weave stamped with green line drawings of storks and brown letter A's, the endpaper was jolting, at once intimate and alienating. Seeing it was like suddenly coming upon a photo of the house in which I grew up. If so, it was a strange house, crowded and floating in space. The image has no background but a flat pale ochre behind the teeming group portrait of the principal figures with which Szyk populated Andersen's stories. On the top left is the Snow Queen, mysterious, aloof, and appropriately larger than anyone else. Beneath her is the toy ballerina, the adored love object of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, while a gremlin resembling a highly animated tree root reaches over a low wall, behind the Emperor and the Nightingale hovering like the holy spirit. On the right, past the rather attractive Ugly Duckling, sits an old man in a chair, holding a book, presumably the author, though his face more closely suggests a Polish-Jewish relative of Szyk's than the odd-looking Dane who stares at us so unhappily from photos of Hans Christian Andersen.
Szyk's images evoke medieval manuscript illumination and the miniature paintings of India and Persia. There are the same jewel-like colors, the stylized grace of the figures, the condensed fanciful narratives, the extravagant decorative patterns. In the illustration for "The Marsh King's Daughter," the part Egyptian, part Art Nouveau Princess sways her shapely arms in the huladancer tribute of an altarpiece angel; in the background are two large storks, with three more in the air, all of which could have been plucked from a row of hieroglyphics on a Pharaoh's tomb. The East Wind from "The Garden of Paradise" is a Chinese aristocrat in silks and brocade, flying diagonally up the page and bearing on his shoulders a prince from a Netherlandish family portrait. The cowherd in "Great Claus and Little Claus" could be walking across a field in a fourteenth-century Book of Hours, while the insects and forest creatures menacing "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf " seem like visitors from one of Bosch's night-mares. Often Szyk's birds look especially bright-eyed and crazed.