Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Childhood Bookshelf Revealed

This past weekend my husband and I paid a visit to my parents in Connecticut. While my dad commandeered my husband into fixing every appliance in the house, I had time to sit in my childhood bedroom and take a long look around. Some things have changed in this room since I was home for the holidays, like the ongoing and unsettling proliferation of my mom’s completed jigsaw puzzles on every unoccupied surface. Some things haven’t, like my cringeworthy closet door collage of things I thought were rad in high school (emo bands, Jake Gyllenhaal, cheeky advertisements). But the truly revealing evidence of Pam-Cortland-through-the-ages can be found on the bookshelves that line the three walls of my room. Curious and hard up for blog fodder, I took to the shelves to ask, “What do our childhood and adolescent bookshelves reveal about us?”

This is probably the oldest book in my room. My dad, ever the ambitious English professor, gave this to me when I was…8? 9? Whatever the age, it was surely too early to encounter the unexpurgated text of the Grimm tales. The 242 stories herein are bloody as hell and tremendously anti-Semitic. And I read each story at least 4 or 5 times. I was…a pretty confused child. But now I have a keen eye for folk tale tropes!

Sophomore year of high school. My classmates and I were just starting to read real books in French class. Recall how insufferable 15-year-olds are. Now imagine a classroom of 15-year-olds reading Sartre in French. Yeah, I thought I was worldly as shit. The only reason this book looks so tattered is that I likely toted it around in my bag for months after completing it, so I could whip it out while waiting for my mom to check out at Stop n Shop and look so deep.

The most formative and weird period of my young adulthood was my four-month-long study abroad term in Glasgow during my junior year of college. My classmates and I were enrolled in English literature courses at the University of Glasgow, and I opted to have my one elective course be yet another literature course instead of something fun, like studio art or Scotch distilling. In short, my study abroad experience was more monk-like than spring break. Glasgow in the fall gets about 5 hours of daylight daily, most of which I spent in the library reading Jacobean revenge dramas and strange books like The Master and Margarita. Among the essay deadlines for my three lit classes, I barely found the time to feed myself, letting myself believe that my roommate’s orange Bacardi Breeze was an acceptable substitute for orange juice at breakfast time. This cracked-out British jacket for The Master and Margarita is a fitting illustration of how my life felt at that time. Best four months of my life!

This book is a stand-in for an intense graphic novel phase I went through senior year of college—coincidentally, the same year that my college introduced a course on graphic novels. We read so many Pantheon titles…and then I graduated, moved to New York City, got a job at Random House, and started working on those titles! DREAMS REALLY DO COME TRUE.

So. Have I come any closer to answering my post’s question? I’m not sure. I suspect I should have read more age-appropriate books. But what I’m really interested in are the books haunting your childhood shelves. Do it up in the comments!


  1. [Disclaimer: Pam's younger sister here.]

    I can't even tell you how many times I opened up that copy of Brothers Grimm when I was younger, only to immediately shut it as my eyes glazed over after the first few sentences of EVERY SINGLE STORY IN THERE. Now that I'm older, maybe I should try again...but after your retrospective description of those tales, maybe not...

    At first, I was shocked upon reading this post that you failed to even MENTION our mutual obsession with the Redwall series...! At least, that was until I remembered that this was because we never actually owned a book from the series; no, instead we would check out those massive, tattered books (usually paperback, but the hardcovers were KILLER) from the public library and spend hours upon hours indulging in the fantasy world of talking badgers and acorn cakes with pinecone-needle-sprinkles. And then there was that whole Dean Koontz phase (was that just me?), also missing from our bookshelves at home, but perpetually in stock in the library stacks. Now that I think about it, I actually believe our childhood shelves might not be as representative of our actual childhood reading habits as might be suspected! Next post suggestion: a visit to the Wallingford (CT) Public Library. I'm so there.

  2. Oh, like the time I publicly declared in 6th grade English class that I had checked out every book on Greek mythology in the library? It was like .

  3. Oh Scotland! I read the Master and Margarita my junior year while I was studying abroad in Edinburgh! I was obsessed. My fascination culminated in a visit to Krakow where I stumbled upon an amazing book store called Massolit books (the name of the trade union) where I was able to find a book by my favorite polish poet in English. Such great memories - i should consider rereading.