Ann Hood is the bestselling author of THE KNITTING CIRCLE, THE RED THREAD and THE OBITUARY WRITER, among others, as well as the recipient of mutiple awards, including two Pushcart Prizes. Her latest book, KNITTING YARNS: Writers on Knitting, is a collection of essays by 27 popular authors --- curated and edited by Ann --- about the transformative magic of yarn and a pair of needles. Here, Ann writes about the magic of another seemingly ordinary object: a book. She recalls how her mother dismissed books as "the greatest waste of money around," and how splurging on a hardcover was her first small but significant step toward independence.
My mother believed that buying books was the greatest waste of money around. Every week she took me along with her to the local discount store, Ann and Hope, where she bought curtains, bath mats and tablecloths on the cheap. I brought my allowance so that I could buy a Nancy Drew book. The entire series was lined up, yellow spines out, the numbers and titles in order, beginning with THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK and ending with THE SPIDER SAPPHIRE MYSTERY. I had no sisters, just a mathematically obsessed brother who solved problems on a slide ruler for fun. But my cousin Gloria-Jean, a year older than me, shared my passion for reading, and she also used her allowance to buy a Nancy Drew book every week. Our plan was to read every one of them, trading our newest one after we’d each finished it.
At the cash register, my mother glared and sighed. “I cannot believe you are wasting your money on a book. A book! Of all things!”
I didn’t care. I held that yellow book close to my chest, and happily handed over my two dollars, the bills damp and creased.
Back then, in the late 1960s, our small, economically depressed town, West Warwick, did not have a library. The Pawtuxet River moved sluggishly though the center, brown water topped with yellow foam. Along the rivers, mills that had produced textiles in the 19th century now stood empty, leaving most of the town unemployed. A Champlain Grant to build a library led to breaking ground behind Main Street, where the movie theater now showed Triple X movies, the Woolworth’s was boarded up, and bars replaced what had once been fine clothing stores. To avid readers like Gloria-Jean and me, the progress on the library seemed practically glacial. By the time it finally opened, we had read every Nancy Drew book and were ready to move on.
Move on we did! Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens; Harold Robbins and Herman Wouk; Victor Hugo and Evan Hunter. We read indiscriminately. We read everything. Three, four, five books a week we read, calling each other every night to discuss MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR or DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or DAVID COPPERFIELD. “A waste of time!” my mother would say when I hung up. “Put the book down and go outside and play!” In family pictures during this time, I am always holding a book in my lap, my finger holding my place.
Then, in 1970, something almost more miraculous than a library came to town. The Warwick Mall opened, just a mile from my house, an easy walk on a Saturday morning. Boston department stores Jordan Marsh and Filene’s anchored each end of the mall. And on the path from one to the other stood the first bookstore I had ever seen. Waldenbooks was a small rectangle tucked between a fast food steak house and a Spencer’s Gifts. Although the lure of a $3.99 steak and a lava lamp were great, nothing beckoned me more than that bookstore.
At the front, a wooden display showed hardcover bestsellers, face out. Beside it, a spinning rack held paperbacks, more than I ever imagined. Sometimes, I went there and touched every single book, the smell of incense and French fries from the neighboring stores filling my nose, all of it intoxicating.
On one of those visits, the novel LOVE STORY caught my eye. The book was slender, white, with the title in big red, blue and green letters. I still remember how the O in LOVE tilted left, how Erich Segal’s name sat beneath it in red, and how the words: LOVE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY seemed more profound than anything I had ever read. That spring and into fall, LOVE STORY remained on the bestseller list, securing its spot on the front display of Waldenbooks. Although I cannot remember how much the book sold for in 1970, I do remember that the price seemed --- no, was! --- astronomical to a seventh grader in West Warwick, Rhode Island. If my mother thought spending $1.99 on a Nancy Drew book was a waste of money, what would she say if I brought home this beautiful, expensive hardcover book? I was not a kid who got in trouble, but I imagined my mother’s wrath at such a purchase.
One day, as I stood fondling the book and pondering how love meant never having to say you’re sorry, it occurred to me that giving a book to Gloria-Jean would be the most wonderful present anyone had ever given her. Even though we owned those Nancy Drew books, this book, LOVE STORY, was a real book. A hardcover! A bestseller! Imagine owning such a thing! I remember that the cold weather had arrived, and I was wearing my pale blue winter jacket. Yet I shivered at the thought of it.
I saved my allowance until the December day I could go into Waldenbooks and buy LOVE STORY, the first real book I’d ever bought, and the first book I would give as a gift. Could the shaggy haired boy who rang up the purchase understand how important this moment was for me? I don’t think so. After all, he stood behind that cash register all day selling books, as if it were nothing special. Muzak Christmas carols filled the air. Lights twinkled from every storefront. I had never felt the Christmas spirit as much as I did at that moment. But when he asked me if I wanted the book gift wrapped, I hesitated and shook my head, even though the wrapping paper there was much more beautiful than the one at home from Ann and Hope.
Instead, I tucked the slim book in its Waldenbooks paper bag inside my jacket, and walked home along the snowy streets, past the dilapidated mill houses with their flashing blue Christmas lights, over the bridge that crossed the sluggish Pawtuxet River, past the three churches and up the big slippery hill. Once inside and warm, I pulled my treasure from the bag, and placed it on its spine. Then I carefully opened the book the tiniest bit, and read it from beginning to end without cracking the spine. I think I began to cry at the first line: What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? By the end, I was sobbing. Through teary eyes, I closed the book and wrapped it in the flimsy Ann and Hope Christmas paper, topping it with a big silver bow.
Since that long ago day, I have given more books than I can count as Christmas presents. But none have meant as much to me. That first one showed me something I already knew --- that owning books is not a waste of money, not at all. But I now realize that it was my first step toward independence, stepping into that world of books and language that was so foreign to my family, but that shaped me and made me who I am today.