Thursday, April 26, 2007

My First Love

I fell in love with books for the first time when I was in the third grade.

My teacher was Mrs. Hall. She was very strict, and since I was a terribly a shy child, I was terrified of her—her brusque manner of speech, her high expectations of us—the way she wielded a long wooden paddle at us when we acted up.

The only time I wasn’t afraid of her was during the lazy, slow hour after lunch, when she’d turn off the overhead lights and pull a tall wooden stool into the center of the front of the classroom and read to us.

Mrs. Hall’s voice lost its harsh edge when she read; she had a beautiful reading voice. It was not too loud, and not too soft, not too fast, and not too slow. She read us many books while perched up on that stool, her ankles crossed, her posture ramrod straight.

And thus, my life as a truly devoted reader can be traced back to the gentle rise and fall of Mrs. Hall’s voice in that dark little classroom, where she read to us read from the pages of one little book:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

I have read many wonderful books in my life, books that broke my heart, books that I’ve read over and over and over until the pages become soft and worn, until the covers fall off. But none of them will ever evoke in me the rush of emotion, the swell of love, the sweeping feeling of pure joy, that I got while reading Charlotte’s Web.

I remember when I got my very own copy. My dad drove me over to the Walden Books in the Beaver Valley Mall, and held my little hand in his big hand while he plucked the book from the shelf and gave it to me.

Oh, the thrill of a new book!

I still remember the smell of it-- that great book smell—a cross between oatmeal and papier mache. I remember thumbing through the pages, examining the illustrations of Fern and her beloved pig, Wilbur.

I read that book so many times I could recite the first chapter by heart. And sometimes, late at night when I couldn’t sleep, I lay in bed and whispered the words out into the darkness.

And now here I am, a grown up, sitting in my grown up clothes in my grown up office. And, perhaps through the influences of Mrs. Hall and E.B. White, I edit books for a living.

I realize this may sound like a very romantic and creative job, and I like to think that maybe it was, back in 1952 when old E.B. first published Charlotte’s Web. But so often now, ugly words like author platform and marketing budget and publicity campaign and other such nonsense make it difficult to remember how easy it is to love a book.

Last week, I was suffering from a major case of book burnout, so I looked up Charlotte’s Web on the internet. I was relieved to find that several editions of it were still available, one of which featured the original cover artwork by Garth Williams that I remember from the third grade. So I pointed and I clicked, and within a day or so, a hardcover edition of Charlotte’s Web was delivered to my office.

And last night, after a particularly rotten day at work, after dinner was eaten and the dishes were done and spiceboy had taken Betty out onto the rainy sidewalks for her nightly stroll, I picked up my fresh copy of Charlotte’s Web, and I began to read.

Can one’s heart break with nostalgia? By the time I got to the illustration of Fern lovingly feeding Wilbur a bottle on page 6, I swear mine did.

And by the time I got to the description of the barn on page 13--
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had sort of a peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world
I was so overwhelmed by the familiarity of the words the rhythm of the language, even after all the years that have passed since I last read it, that I cried.

And by the time Wilbur meets Charlotte on page 32, I was back in the third grade again, and restless with the pure joy that comes from falling in love with a book, from reading a really great story. A wonderful feeling.

I read and read until I fell asleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night, long after spiceboy had switched off my bedside lamp. The wind blew in through the window, smelling of rain and city soot, carrying with it the sound of squealing brakes, a blaring horn.

I adjusted the blankets around me and folded my arms behind my head. I thought back to when I was a little girl, alone in my bed at night, whispering the words of the book I loved the most, and I was surprised at how easily the first line came back to me, and all of the lines that followed, as I whispered them out into the night.