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Must. Have.

It’s an interesting thing to witness — how much the world changes, especially in the course of one’s own lifetime. Some changes are huge and grand such as a nation’s boundaries redrawn through war or peace, or a new technology (for me, handheld GPS) that changes Everything. Many changes are small and incremental, but add up over time to make for a completely different world.

One area of much change I’ve observed in my lifetime is in the realm of content, books and publishing, reading material available and the like.

birthday books

At some point when I was in elementary school, I was reading the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There were 10 of them I think, and I doubt they were extraordinarily expensive, but for as much as my mom had us at the library weekly, she/we/they/whatever didn’t just go out and buy books.

Nor were there a whole lot of books for children back in Gen Xers’ childhood days.

Once or twice a year a book catalog would be distributed at school, which we would take home to our parents. In said catalog were children’s books made easily available (and for a slight discount) if bought through this catalog. I don’t think my parents (read: my mom as my dad wasn’t much involved in our lives, despite living in the same house) ever said, “Yeah, pick what you want.” I think I mostly salivated and wanted, but had no expectations of a treat.

Times were different. Resources directed to children’s needs and wants weren’t much of a thing in Gen Xers’ youth. And my parents–like many struggling-to-get-by, middle-class parents weren’t looking for ways to spend more money than needed.

But for a spate of time in my younger years, I always got a Little House on the Prairie book, either for my birthday or for Christmas. After I’d finish the most recently gifted book I had to wait until the next gift-receiving event. I anticipated them. It was exciting. It never occurred to me to say “Buy them all at once, please.” (Nor would that have happened regardless of my plea or whine level.) The pace of things was different then. Products and retail sales operated in a very different cultural backdrop. I was a child. I wasn’t much of an active player in the realm of purchase requests nor acquisitions.

my money, my choice

But like pretty much every kid back then, I had a meager allowance and I worked. I babysat (starting at age 10 in the family and age 12 for other people’s children … sometimes even for infants, which shocks me even to this day). I pet sat. I house sat. I did odd jobs to make extra money for my own wants.

On occasion, I would get on my banana-seat bike (two-tone metallic, yellow to green) and ride the two-plus miles and back to the Oakland Mills Village Center. There, in the shopping center, was a People’s, the local drug store chain of the day. And in the People’s there was a person-height rotating display for paperback books.

I loved going to People’s as it offered all kinds of things I might want, even if I couldn’t afford these things, or if they weren’t a priority for my child’s budget. I just liked them. I liked the options and considerations beyond our bare basic personal-care items at home. I liked that there were shampoos in different scents and pens in colors beyond just black and blue and red.

So one summer day, in 1977, at the People’s drug store, turning the person-height paperback book display, I saw something I had to have! It was a book and the cover was shiny, metallic and silver. It was different. It was exciting. A shiny book cover! I had to have it. And, thus, I bought and read the first adult-audience book of my life, The Shining.

a path, opened

My almost-14-year-old’s mind didn’t know who Stephen King was. My parents weren’t “readers,” per se. Not fiction, at least, and certainly not pop fiction. As to whether I saw Carrie (a rather impressionable film) on TV before or after I read The Shining, I don’t recall. One way or the other, I found Stephen King and, in time, a host of books to read and one of my favorite authors … still to this day.

There was an open-space path near our home which I walked often. There is a path and open-space near nearly everyone’s home in Columbia, Maryland, for what it’s worth, because that is how Columbia was designed. Zoning laws dictate how close houses can be built to streams and flowing water, and Columbia, near the Patuxent River, had many little streams leading to larger streams and rivers, and it had–by the vision of developer Jim Rouse and geographic reality of so many creeks and streams in the area–some 94 miles of paths.

I knew well the paths near our home for they were the way we got around as kids. Paths to school, paths to the pool, paths to the WaWa, to friends’ homes. Paths to playgrounds and streams and tot lots and whatnot. And along these paths there was a particular tree. It was not a big tree. It had a “Y” in it and a place where I could–with reasonable but not too great an effort — climb up, situate myself in the “Y” and read. And so I did.

It wasn’t particularly comfortable sitting for an hour or more in the Y of a tree, but I did it. I was on an adventure with this shiny, metallic, adult-fiction book, and I was going to be adventurous in the reading of it. So up I climbed and there I read The Shining. My book. Bought by me, for me, with no one else to lay claim to it or tell me I couldn’t read it. Page by terrifying page I read it.

heart, racing

As the book races toward its climax, there is a scene where the animal topiaries on the grounds start moving. I ever so distinctly remember reading this part of the book. I was sitting in the Y of the tree I’d come to consider my reading nook when I suddenly heard a loud, distinct, odd animal noise below me. I near fell out of the tree just from the tension in the book and the tension in my body. When I looked down, I saw the most unfavorable image (given the circumstances): there was a groundhog below, front paws on the tree, looking up at me with what felt like nefarious intent and making a sound I’d never heard before.

Now, I’d had rodents as pets–guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rats and mice–and I wasn’t anti-rodent, per se, but I’d always found the fact that their teeth and claws grow endlessly a bit disturbing. So, yeah, reading the part of the book where the animal topiaries came to life right as a seemingly aggressive groundhog started hollering at me while placing its paws on the trunk and looking up at me? Yeah, my heart was racing. For quite some time.

I tried to keep reading that day, but I was so shaken and had to go home. Plus my butt and back hurt a bit after sitting so long in the Y of the tree.

And while, in time, I learned to close all blinds and lock all doors in my house before sitting down to read a Stephen King novel, that memory of my reading my first Stephen King novel–outside and alone in a tree by a creek–stays with me still.



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