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The Books That… Part 2: Growing Up With Books

The Books That… Part 2: Growing Up With Books

For ten years until his retirement, my father was figuratively chained to the Minuteman missile. His evenings, apart from dinner with the family, were largely spent reading and writing technical memoranda and reports designed to help ensure that the United States’s strategic nuclear warhead missile remained a jump ahead of Russian defenses. For that reason, I rarely saw a book in his hand. My mother’s night stand supported the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins, authors Mr. Spock undoubtedly will refer to in a future century as “the giants.”

Both parents encouraged their children to read. Our home library did not reflect the widest of tastes, but did allow for a child’s “cultural literacy” before that term became popular. I spent countless hours poring through our Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, A-Z. I devoured selected portion of Grolier’s ten-volume Book of Knowledge (one of the 1950s editions). Two favorites I recall are the story of Nathan Hale and the “Song of Roland.” Also to my liking was the LIFE World Library. I read some two dozen volumes, especially the chapters on each nation’s history. Repeatedly, I visited my favorite nations, France and Ireland, whose histories particularly fascinated me. (My mother is from Ireland and her father’s line came across with the Normans.) Out of all these books, only one volume still holds space in my library, the LIFE volume on Ireland.

The shelves held the 40-volume Yale Shakespeare, a complete set of the Bard’s plays. The tragedy Julius Caesar was my favorite, while such works as MacBeth and Hamlet blew right past me. I also read the occasional abridged novel in the Readers Digest Condensed version. (The Ugly American is the only one that springs to mind, but there were others.)

LIFE and LOOK magazines frequently gave extensive space to book excerpts, such as MacArthur’s Reminiscences or McKinley Cantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War. A well-illustrated 1965 LIFE article on Waterloo was not my first introduction to the event, but had glorious color images that stirred my imagination.

Our home library only whet my appetite for more. Early on, I was an avid user of the school library. I read a few Hardy Boys mysteries, but it was the history and especially biography stacks that drew my attention. I fell in love with two (actually three) book series intended for young readers. These were the Landmark (or American Landmark) Books, World Landmark Books, and Grosset and Dunlop’s Signature Books. Published in the 1950s and early 1960s, they were written by accomplished historians, including William Shirer and Thomas Costain, and acclaimed historical novelists like C.S. Forrester. Again, I don’t recall all of the scores of titles I read, but they included biographies of Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison, Francis Marion, and Florence Nightingale, focusing inordinately on their conveniently, lightly documented childhood years. The Landmark and Signature histories presented episodes from every age of mankind, from the peopling of America to the space race.  Decades later, I purchased a few dog-eared volumes that had been particular favorites. The greatly fictionalized biographies of American icons George “Autie” Custer and Wyatt Earp illustrate the transformation of biography and history into legend and mythology aimed at young readers. I ate it all up.