Then there are my mother’s books. She majored in English in college and subsequently taught it to high school students for a couple of years until my dad finished up his degree in night school and she could focus on her important housewifely duties. She boxed up all the less attractive paperbacks and forgot about them in the garage.
Before I could drive, back when I was often desperate for something different to read since my mom had the misguided idea that ten books from the library would be sufficient for the month until she took me back there, I had to convince her that I wouldn’t trash the fancy books that she displayed on the shelves, sucking up the Edgar Allan Poe stories, Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Emerson’s Essays, and the rest. I couldn’t believe that there were boxes of books just gathering dust in the garage when I was panting for print.
She wasn’t even sure why she kept them. To some extent, I’m also unsure. She seems to have taken a course on the European novel, so I acquired some Gide, Mann, Tolstoy, Kafka, and Proust, unless the Gide and Proust came from the French minor. (Since they are in English, I certainly hope not!) I pilfered her copy of The Yearling and a book called The King Must Die, which I remember liking.
During her more recent book-club phase, I acquired Like Water for Chocolate, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, A Thousand Acres, and Crossing to Safety. She liked some of them, but didn’t want to keep any of them. Go figure.
Right now, (well, not RIGHT now, since I’m typing), I’m reading her copy of Moby Dick, which has evaded my attention until now. She went to college before highlighters existed, so she used red ball-point pen to underline passages and make notes in the margins in her awkward leftie handwriting. (My mischievous inner child just pointed out that she has some leftie leanings, as evidenced by her red words; she would not be amused.) It was at college that she finally ditched the second half of her name and became Betty rather than Betty Jane, except to her mother and family members who needed to needle her or get her attention in a crowd. I smiled at the pseudo-grown-up B. Auw on the title page and grinned even wider at the sorority letters underneath. I wonder if she thought that perhaps she might lose the book and some handsome fellow would show up at the house door to return it and ask her for a date.
Her reading seems to have been strategic rather than emotional. She focuses on the arrival of characters and themes rather than the felicities of language. The introduction is as heavily annotated as the text, maybe even more.
I’ve only reached Chapter 15. I’m enjoying the story so far. Despite her markings, I can’t tell whether my mom liked it or not. I think perhaps the book was, for her, a longer version of a math problem, something to be solved and put aside. No wonder all the books end up with me eventually.