January 16, 2013
My birthday’s coming up in a few weeks – 39, darling, why do you ask? – and in thinking about a new blog post, I suddenly remembered the best birthday present I ever got.
My parents had split up when I was seven, and a few years later, my mother began dating a man, let’s call him Charles, who worked for the New York Times Book Review. I was, of course, deeply suspicious of Charles. He demanded some of my mother’s attention – the attention that belonged to me – and while the books I loved tended more toward wicked stepmothers, I didn’t guess that stepfathers were likely to be a whole lot better.
Boy, was I wrong. The Times Book Review, as you might expect, gets at least one copy of every book published in the English-speaking world, because every writer and publisher in the known universe is hoping for the meagerest of mentions. Well, no, they’re hoping for a rave from Michiko Kakutani, but in any case, they send in a copy. This story happened way back in the day, and for all I know things are done differently now, but at the time, all those books got piled up in one big room, and the Book Review staff was periodically ushered in for a nice literary pillage.
Charles, bless him, headed straight for the children’s section. And on the night of my tenth birthday he arrived at the front door, snow dusting his topcoat, and his glove-less fingers red and raw-looking, clutching the handles of maybe five enormous shopping bags that were filled to bursting with books.
And all of them, all of them for me! I am a greedy girl. I like my pleasures in volume, and even better than mounds of whipped cream or vats of chocolate pudding or spilling piles of cushions and sparkly things, better than all of those…would be bags and bags of books. More than I could carry to my bedroom in three trips, more than I could read before I turned eleven. To this day, that’s my best birthday ever.
I’ve had other terrific book-presents. A friend once gave me a new hardcover that he knew I wanted, at a time when neither of us could easily afford hardcover books. My mother gave me Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, and my father gave me The Once and Future King, and I think it’s fair to say that those two books represent the poles between which my character tends to shuttle. But more wonderful than all of these was Charles dripping melting snow onto our doormat, my own personal Santa, with the bags and bags and bags and bags of books.