An Archeological Adventure for Percocious Children and Nostalgic Adults

If you're reading this, you no doubt belong to one of the two camps suggested in the subtitle. Precocious child. Nostalgic adult. Two years ago, when I reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, an old hardback edition with battered brown boards and a pastedown of Tom in raveling hat and single suspender, I noticed, for the first time, Twain’s similar ambition in the preface: “Although my book is intended for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves.”

As a kid, I was a striving, high-reaching reader―that is to say, I liked books slightly beyond me, with words I had to look up―and, as the owner of a bookstore, I frequently recommend “adult” authors to children. What I call “reading to aspiration,” a sort of literary version of something my high school tennis coach (a man known for his spot-on aphorisms and calf-striped tube socks) always said: “The only way to improve your game is to play against somebody better.”

I remember the first time I encountered what was, I decided, a proper adult book. We lived in Cranbury, New Jersey where my stepfather was the dentist. Our house was on Main Street, and our backyard opened onto the school yard. The school library, which was also the town library, faced us and was an easy walk across the baseball diamond. The side from which children were meant to choose books had posters of Babar and stuffed animals propped on the bookcases, which were half as high as the adult ones (and short enough for me to see across the room to where the metal cases reached magnificently to the ceiling). Wandering over to the other side felt like the first time my parents took me to Manhattan, a city that seemed decidedly adult, full of forbidden things, the tall buildings shading and shadowing the sidewalks. The adult side of the library was shadowed too, duskier than the bright children’s section, the high shelves in many instances blocking the overhead lights. The first book I picked up was a photoplay version of Dracula, meaning it had, at its center, a series of production stills from the Bela Lugosi movie. I was thrilled and horrified. (And particularly impressed by the hair, black and shiny as the back of a beetle, made extra glossy by the hard sheen of the photoplay pages, which stood out starkly from the yellowed paper of the rest of the book.) I still remember a paragraph describing the vampire crawling headfirst down the castle front, how he used his hands and bare toes, grabbing hold of every little projection, to proceed downward; he was likened to a lizard moving along a garden wall (a comparison that made me shiver with fear and delight). The librarian wouldn’t let me take it out. “Those are for adults. These,” she said, pointing back over to where there was a spin rack of hand puppets and a Sendak poster that said Wild About Reading, “are for kids.” Ah, yes. And never the twain should meet. Pun intended.

In 1980, the winter I turned ten, we moved to Alabama. In Alabama, town was five miles away and to go to the movies you had to drive an hour and cross the state line. Our black-and-white TV got only three staticky stations and the side panel became dangerously hot if it was on for more than an hour. Accordingly, reading (and being read to) was our only regular cultural diversion. But here there was no library. No town library, and a school library that consisted of a closet where they also stood mops and shelved rolls of TP. Once a month, a poorly supplied book mobile parked in the lot across from the bank. It was a converted school bus side-stenciled with the word “books” repeated three times and punctuated each time with an exclamation point. It had a long nose and a grim grill and looked like the Peterbilt tanker Steven Spielberg used in Duel, a movie about a car being menaced by a truck. The man who drove the bus was not a reader. He was, my mother said, a former refrigerator salesman. Book Mobile Driver was a job he’d fallen into after being fired for filling fridges with rough-butchered venison, a nice bonus, he’d thought, for buying a freezer from him. When several startled women called the company to protest the rich, red meat, the blood puddles in the crisper, he’d been summarily dismissed. Now he drove the book bus, but as it turned out, the bus was more magazine than book.

Fortunately, my mother had been a high school English teacher and the converted fishing cabin where we now lived had a stocked bookcase that ran the length of the longest uninterrupted wall in the house. Dickens, Stevenson, Verne, Wells. Again, television, despite the elaborate antler of twisted tinfoil, was limited and snowy, and most nights we’d sit around the boxy, wood-burning stove reading. After dinner, when Doctor—as we starchily called our stepfather—would return to the stables to cauterize fraying horse leads with a lighter, Mom, either consciously or unconsciously imitating a scenario that had occurred maybe a hundred years before (when families gathered around the fire to read aloud chunks of, say, Guy Mannering), would dramatically declaim some novel from her bookcase. Poised on a low-slung fainting couch (one of the few objects that bore her romantic stamp in an otherwise rustic residence full of mounted fish and trophy heads), she’d change her voice for each of Richard Adams’ rabbits in Watership Down, go full-on Raja for Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or offer a burbling impersonation of the British prime minister in Paladin, a novel about a schoolboy, code name Christopher Robin, personally recruited by Winston Churchill.

While the male members of my family―father, brother, uncles―are physically (though, of course, fictionally) portrayed here, Percy’s mom has gone missing, leaving behind only a spinning bike wheel and, consequently, no character counterpart for my own mother in the Rapscallion world. But the memory of these fireside sessions, both the stories she read and how she read them, inspires this book even more than the facial hair and personality quirks of the Dawson men. I rarely see my mom, who still lives down south, a thousand miles from Metuchen, New Jersey, where I run The Raconteur, but I can imagine her reading The Rapscallion Club to my brother and me, her voice rich and rotund for paterfamilias Nigel, fast and easy for the pool-playing Uncle Jonathan, and all bottled up in her nose for the persnickety Uncle Edmund.

Again, you’re either a child or an adult holding this book, scanning these pages, or perhaps you’re both. An adult sitting on the edge of a small bed with dinosaur sheets, sticky ceiling stars full-up on a day of sunlight glowing greenly above, reading aloud to a young boy or girl as maybe a blinded moth ticks in the narrowing shade of a tiny lamp. And, come to think of it, that is perhaps the very best way to read it.


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