Books In the House

Most readers can recall the books they first fell in love with–which, even after a series of romances, they always recall with the nostalgia of a first kiss.  If I asked, what was yours? it probably wouldn’t take you long to recall.  But here’s another question, raised by Laura Miller in an online article titled, “Book owners have smarter kids.”  According to a study published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (a professional journal–who knew?), kids who grow up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”  It’s scientific!  Even 25 books in the house can propel a child through two years of schooling more than a contemporary with no books.  Another study found that giving 12 books to low-income children at the beginning of the summer helps prevent the effects of “summer slide” that put these kids so far behind their more affluent peers.  Naturally, there’s a federally-funded program expanding to eight states this summer, giving away 2.5 million books to disadvantaged children.

There’s not enough information in the essay to determine if the children actually read these books or if the mere presence of solid spines on a shelf radiates intelligence.  I’m not being entirely facetious.  If the books are on a shelf nearby, someone is 100% more likely to pick one up and open it than if there are no books. The exercise of reading and comprehending even a few paragraphs is the equivalent of fifty pushups for the brain (more or less). 

My parents were not college-educated (my mother got through one year at Texas Women’s University before, in the words of a cousin, the family had to spend her college tuition for tires), but we had well over 200 books in the house–an eclectic batch of history, geography, art, essay, poetry, and some fiction.  Some titles I remember: 1849: year of Decision (DeVoto), Their Finest Hour (Churchill), Is Sex Necessary? (Thurber and White), Impressionist Masterpieces, At Ease: Stories I tell to Friends (Eisenhower), Up Front (Maldin), Hammonds World Atlas, Hiroshima (Hershey), several volumes of the Classic Club, Van Loon’s Lives, Robert Service’s Poems.  Particularly significant was a very incomplete set of Shakespeare: little volumes published in the 1890s and containing one play each, plus critical essays.  I didn’t read much of the plays (still don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare), but devoured the essays, including a series called Mrs. [Somebody’s] Characteristics of Women, which were apt to begin with sentences like “Ophelia!  What pathos, what heart-rending sympathy that name brings to mind . . .”   Also significant: A Thurber Carnival, collected cartoons, stories and essays that I read over and over, especially the autobiographical stories from My Life and Hard Times.  James Thurber’s humor was so subtle I often didn’t catch it, though certain cartoons and sentences struck me and nobody else as funny. 

Most of these books however I didn’t read.  But during my years of living among them there probably wasn’t one I didn’t pick up.  Laura Miller recalls reading the plays of George Bernard Shaw simply because they were laying around the house, and though she didn’t especially love them, or gain memorable knowledge from them, they expanded her world.  Just knowing what a book is about expands a world.

So I’m wondering: who remembers growing up with books, even if they don’t remember all the titles?  Were there any you read, or at least looked through, that left an impression even if you didn’t particularly like them?  Does that, by itself, prove the point?


One Response to “Books In the House”

  1. Emily@Behind the Bookcase Says:

    I wonder if there is any difference in a book’s benefit based on where it is kept in the house. Are people who keep their books in a bathroom smarter than those who keep them on the sun-porch?

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