When writing recently about the bane of gift books, I started off by lustily inveighing against the very most recent one of these to be sent my way, which is the collection of Charlie LeDuff’s newspaper pieces. But I’d completely overlooked the first gift books among them. I trace it back to the time I was turning 11 or 12 and decided I’d like to have a birthday party. A kid named Steve, who lived at the bottom of the hill, was one of the puny number of attendees. His family took its faith seriously, and he had been brought up to be kind to everyone.
Steve was physically a much bigger kid, with dark hair and eyes and a pleasant smile. On the playground he showed very little footspeed but was a ready participant in ballgames and could dependably clog up the middle, as they say of defensive tackles. In saying he was a big kid, I don’t mean he had large powerful shoulders. Once as were changing back to street clothes after ninth-grade gym class, I had a glimpse of his bare dimpled rear end and impulsively called him “Jell-O butt,” which was a most ungracious thing to say, and I’ve often regretted my callousness and would happily apologize if I ever meet him again, which will probably be in a big-box store as he’s driving down the aisle in an electric cart because he’s grown too fat to walk.
Steve’s gift to me at my birthday party, a hardcover edition of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” was probably a recycled item. Maybe Steve had received it at his own earlier birthday party, to which I most conspicuously had not been invited. (How else would he have seen the way clear to foist his book upon me?) Or maybe one of his older sisters owned but was discarding it after having purchased a leather-bound edition of the work. Maybe the advance notice for my party had been too slim, leaving only enough time to skim off “Little Women” from the scant selection of possible gifts in the family’s inventory. Maybe times were hard down there at the bottom of the hill—my mother said the salary of Steve’s father, a YMCA manager, couldn’t be too great. Maybe the whole family was just a little odd and Steve went off to the next birthday party with a copy of “Anne of Green Gables” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”
My younger brother, Dan, once reported that Steve’s younger brother, Larry, took down his own pants and challenged Dan to do the same in a comparison of manly parts. Maybe Larry’s aberrant behavior was due to early and repeated contaminating exposure to “Little Women.”
Even aside from the question of the poor taste Steve had shown in giving me chick lit, the fact was that sentimental nineteenth-century fiction was definitely not the intellectual fashion in our house. Among other subjects my father would probably not have cared to see me pursuing were Greek and Roman mythology, Renaissance poetry, or Victorian literature. His disdain for the gods and goddesses of the Classical Period was in keeping with his rejection of all religious expression as naught but ego-based superstition. (“We’re too important to die, so there must be a soul and eternal life.”) As for the Renaissance, its artistic glories were too much within the purview of high-culture elitists who must be refuted. And the Victorians were of a royalist society, royalism being worthy of contempt and ridicule.
My father, being nevertheless a great believer in the advantages of reading, used to spend more time than money at newsstands. Why purchase the magazine for 35 cents when it could be read on the spot for nothing? “Wait here,” he would tell me and my sister Kate, leaving us sitting in the car outside the drugstore for 45 minutes while he perused Popular Mechanics. He usually wasn’t alone: freeloading at magazine racks was quite popular in those days. I remember accompanying him as an eight-year old at the huge Skagway superstore, located at 72nd and L Streets in our fair city of Omaha. While he was absorbed in his technical reading, I roamed the enormous humanities section of the periodicals, and here I came upon the first pornographic image of my life (aside from the centerfolds in an auto parts store he frequented). This image, offered by some rag that was included among the True and Argosy imitators, depicted the dungeon where Nazis were about to torture a woman, who was clad only in tattered underthings and was bound, spread-eagled—XXX marks the spot—to a wagon wheel. It must have been the Russian front because of the spoked wooden wheel: probably some oxcart had been flattened by a Panzer. I have never forgotten the thrill—an eight-year-old boy’s inexplicable tastes—and the instantaneous knowledge that this page was surely forbidden, verboten, taboo. I had most likely already committed a sin merely by chancing upon this page. Sometimes I’ve since regretted having put back the magazine so fast, as though it had scorched me. What became of the poor maiden? Maybe Allied bombers smashed the dungeon, and with fate leaving her as the only survivor, she precariously rolled herself on her wheel to amnesty in Switzerland. In any event, the result of my porn immersion at the 100,000-square-foot Skagway superstore was undoubtedly to leave me annealed—even if there hadn’t been too many words on the page—against the insipidities of such limp fiction as “Little Women.” I was into the hard stuff.
My father hadn’t seemed to notice any of this, but perhaps I was wrong. Sometime afterward, for no reason at all, he proffered “Ivanhoe,” the comic book. This historical romance by Sir Walter Scott was published in 1819 and put out by Classic Comics in 1946, with subsequent editions. Even if it hadn’t been way over my head—the dialog balloons teemed with loquacity—I had no taste for this sort of thing, being but my father’s son. I can’t imagine that he would have read Scott’s novel of Saxons and Normans and Lady Rowena, so why did he think I’d go for the comic book? I was already a newspaper reader but skipped the “Prince Valiant” strip on the funny pages. It was comedy, not Arthurian adventure, for me. I was a “Peanuts” kid. I dug “Andy Capp.” I have never forgotten that Dagwood Bumstead’s boss was J.C. Dithers, and I react approximately like Dagwood, which is to say apoplectically, when a door-to-door salesman rings my bell.
As a teenager, my thoughtful selection one year for my father’s Christmas present was Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography, “Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.” I adored Wilt the Stilt but should have known better than to make my father read about a black man, especially an egotistical one like Wilt, and even more especially one who suggested he might live next door. It wouldn’t have much less palatable if I had chosen Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.” To my father’s credit, thought, he soon applied himself to the hoopster’s autobiography but pronounced it nearly insufferable because of Wilt’s braggadocio.
My teen years passed. I read the hilarious “MASH,” by Richard Hooker, and the less hilarious sequel, “MASH Goes to Maine.” Besides the daily newspaper, I didn’t do much additional reading. I had always wanted to read George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion” but never sprang for the $1.95 and still haven’t read it. However, one day in a book nook at the Westroads shopping mall, I came across the racy novel “Three in a Bed.” How I wish I’d held on to this pocket paperback! What a rarity I’d possess today! At the moment of purchase it seemed to be part of a series of multifariously themed soft-porn novels that shared the same cover design, a sort of World Book Encyclopedia of perversity. Buying this—I couldn’t in those days buy cigarettes as easily as the literary transaction was completed—I brought home my prize, thinking finally I had found a subject that suited me: the ménage à trois! I read just the first couple of pages, and then stashed the book with my underwear. I went off to school, forgetting that my mother took care of laundry duties, including the loving placement of all clean and dried and folded underwear back into the bureau. My father—who had probably suffered feelings of rejection those nine years earlier over the “Ivanhoe”—entered my room that afternoon. (Why the hell wasn’t he at work?) “I see you’re finally reading,” he said, grimly tossing “Three in a Bed” at me. “Too bad your choice of material isn’t too good.”
My high school graduation occurred just weeks later. At the small party that was held for me, I knew Grandmother Tillotson could be counted on for some Holy Cards, as usual. Meanwhile, Aunt Margie had given me Peace Dollars over a succession of birthdays, my Holy Communion, and Confirmation. (I still have every one of them.) Another silver dollar would be fine, but I now unwrapped a package that obviously contained a book and found “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which had been a fixture on the bestseller list. This volume was a beautiful slip-cased hardcover with endpapers of vellum: my first deluxe edition.
It helped that “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was brief—a shrewd choice on my aunt’s part—so I actually read the novel, or novella, which is very nearly a unique circumstance in my entire history of receiving gift books. Of course I don’t remember a thing about the story other than its seeming a bit vapid. Once I got to college and started reading the heavyweights like Melville, with all his deep philosophical musings, Richard Bach’s pop fiction fable hardly seemed to belong in my collection: J.L. Gull met Melville’s Confidence Man and endured quite the plucking. Somewhere along the line, I parted with him. Today I regret this action, but not as much as having sold back my physical geography text to the college bookstore.
It seems as though “Little Women” was still in the bookcase at my parents’ house in 1986, on the eve of their move from Omaha to Florida. Being present to help them pack up, I salvaged a couple of my childhood books and brought them back to Ann Arbor. My foxed copy of “The Flight of the Silver Ship,” a 1930 work of juvenile fiction by Hugh McAlister—a dirigible adventure story—survived the transition. “Little Women” got shuffled off among the discards. Society’s attempt to create out of me a eunuch for Jane Austen had inexorably failed.