Remembering when books were magicWritten by George Ellison
We’re still at it—considering books and related matters like shelving strategies, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?” This could go on forever. This week, not having anything else in mind, I’ll reminisce some about the role books have played in my life. I’m not at all sure where this is headed, but I do know that it will be about some things that still mean a lot to me. We’ll start at the beginning.
I was born in Danville, Virginia, where, after my father was killed in World War II, I was raised as an only child. Mother, who never remarried, purchased a small house on North Main Street in an ideal location; that is, adjacent to our backyard was a ball field, where pickup football, baseball and other games were ongoing year-round; and beyond the ball field there were woods and a small creek that flowed several miles into a river. When I wasn’t playing ball or walking in the woods or fishing in the creek, I was reading. Reading has always been one of my greatest pleasures. At one point in my life it was, for lack of a better word, magical. We’ll get back to that.
I grew up wanting to be either: (1) a pitcher for a major league baseball team (preferably the Brooklyn Dodgers), or (2) a writer. It became apparent almost immediately, even to me, that the pitching thing wasn’t going to work out; so, I focused on my backup plan. Because of my infatuation with the reading experience, I did eventually become a writer, of sorts. And somewhat to my surprise, I also became a naturalist, of sorts—a strategy that has allowed me to spend a lot of time in the woods.
My mother’s name was Ruth. She read something to me every night. I recall that she was a good reader, not overly emphatic, and seemed to enjoy the stories—no doubt, in part, as a diversion from more pressing concerns of which I was unaware. I will always remember that she read to me every night.
Once I was reading on my own, she subscribed to a children’s book club that mailed a new book every other week addressed to me. It was addressed to me and it was my book. That’s important. I had a bookcase beside my bed in which I arranged my accumulating collection however I wanted.
By the time I was maybe nine years old, I was using the city library. It was housed, as I recall, in an ornate two-story cube of a building located, just like everything else, on the other side of town. It was reputed to have been the seat of the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy.” I never knew if that was true or not and never really cared. I was interested in the books.
On Saturdays when a game of some sort wasn’t scheduled, I’d catch a city bus first thing in the morning over to the library and spend the day reading down in the basement, where the juvenile books were shelved. There was a sign that warned young people not to enter the main library. The gray-haired librarian in charge of the basement did look like a Confederate spinster or like my idea of what one ought to look like. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ball on the back of her head and held in place with a long pin. I can’t recall her name but we got along. On the sly, she let me check out as many books as I could carry home on the bus.
There was a green cloth-covered chair in my bedroom that I always sat in when reading. If I situated myself, just so, in that chair—with a book opened on my left side and the fingertips of my right hand quietly turning the pages, something would happen. For hours it sometimes seemed, a rare emotion would envelope me, and I would be transported into the world about which I was reading.
When I had read pretty much everything down in the basement worth reading, the Confederate spinster obtained a special dispensation from the head librarian that allowed me to come upstairs and read—so long as I didn’t venture into a certain room, where I supposed the dirty books were shelved. In the far corner of the main reading room there was a plush chair in which I always sat, just so, while reading. It was also magical, especially when there was a steady rain falling on the roof of The Last Capitol of the Confederacy.
At Chapel Hill I majored in English because I still loved reading more than anything else, a whole lot more than, say, chemistry, math, economics, German, and other unlikely opportunities. Back then—this was in the early 60s—the Bull’s Head Book Store was located in the basement of Wilson Library. If a book was worth reading, they had it; and you didn’t have to buy it—there were chairs in which you could sit and read anything for free. Anything. Even the dirty books by writers with names like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and D.H. Lawrence. And once again there was a chair involved. It was a soft black leather or imitation-leather chair tucked in behind a partition. While sitting in it, just so, I could still enter the dream world of each book as I read it . . . they were books with beautiful names . . . The Old Man and the Boy . . . Specimen Days . . . Go Down, Moses . . . My Antonia . . . Far Away and Long Ago . . . The Odyssey . . . Ulysses . . . Urn Burial . . .Lie Down in Darkness . . . Give Your Heart to the Hawks . . . Tender is the Night . . . names that stick with you for a lifetime, long after you have forgotten the plot and most of the characters.
But that was the end of the magic. I grew older, assumed responsibilities as best as I knew how, and lost the capacity to be fully transported by what I was reading. A person I talked with about this experience suggested that things changed for me with “a loss of innocence.” Maybe so . . . a more realistic explanation would be that my way of processing information changed. The stories and images that books relate — fiction and non-fiction, alike — had once flowed into my system unimpeded with galvanizing impact.
George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at,.