For many years, the only books in my grandparents’ home were the Bible, the Yellow Pages, and catalogues from Sears and Montgomery Ward. My grandmother only skimmed the Bible or back issues of Our Daily Bread late in the evening when her favorite television programs bored her, her eyelids drooping despite her best efforts to stay awake. My grandfather was barely literate and always demanded that someone read all of his correspondence to him.
When I was about eight years old our local grocery store began selling encyclopedias for children. They were long slim volumes about half an inch thick and featured Peanuts characters. Titled Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias, each volume focused on topics including animals, transportation, holidays, health and wellness, science, and clothing. The books cost ten dollars each, a small fortune for a family as poor as ours, but whenever Granny and I went to the A & P, she managed to set aside just enough money to purchase a book for me. My mother gave her the money whenever she could spare it, and sometimes one of my aunts would accompany Granny and me on our trips to the grocery store and buy the book for me.
Of the fifteen volumes in the complete set, I managed to collect twelve of them. I kept them stacked in order on the small white desk in my bedroom where I did my homework. I’ve no idea what happened to these books. I assume, as I began to mature, the books started to mean less and less to me, though now, as an adult, I wish I still had them in my possession, if only for sentimental value.
Thinking of those encyclopedias now fills me with tremendous affection and sadness. Maudlin demonstrations aside, those encyclopedias symbolize my early experiences with reading and my grandmother’s intrepid self-sacrificing nature more than any other material possession.
Granny was wise. She knew books were as valuable as food and that in order for me to achieve anything worthwhile in life, I had to acquire as much knowledge as I could and remain forever intellectually curious. Poverty has the ability to stomp this feeling out of individuals. Wealth, I believe, has the same power. Yet my mother, grandmother and school teachers refused to allow me to get caught up in the anti-intellectualism that robbed so many African American boys of their chance to obtain knowledge and success.
Their efforts yielded great results. Today I am a professor, a reader, and a writer. I think of the bookshelves that line the walls of my home library as vaults securing treasure, arsenals housing weapons, future lovers and old flames. I lust for books the way others lust for nubile bodies. I will never read all of the books I own, nor write all of the books carelessly piled in the shadowy realms of my mind. Yet I know wherever there are words there is possibility, hands reaching across the foggy distance as comforting as those of my grandmother.
Jarrett Neal earned a BA in English from Northwestern University and a MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Q Review, Chelsea Station, Copperfield Review, Nolos, Lucid Moon and other publications. His essay, “Boys’ Dolls,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology, For Colored Boys, edited by Keith Boykin. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois.