Imagine if you will two built-in bookcases, one on either side of large windows overlooking a leafy front yard. Under the windows is a window seat. Across from the window seat is a fireplace.
Beneath the bottom of each bookcase are cabinet doors concealing widely spaced shelves built to store items much bigger than Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Here, my mother and father kept intriguing objects that had not exactly been brought to our attention, but were never specifically declared off limits either. It was a treasure trove of old photo albums, oversized art portfolios, atlases, sheet music, and even a gigantic Webster’s Dictionary, which we lugged to the dinning room and placed on a chair as a booster seat whenever it was needed by a foreshortened youth.
Such was the living room in my parents’ house when I was growing up. And if that isn’t a description of heaven, I don’t know what is.
Now, I want to draw to your attention two things about those bookcases. One: The shelves were always filled, top to toe, with books. Two: I cannot remember a single instance when either my mother or my father went to a bookstore. Not once. In fact, the closest thing to a bookstore that ruffles the feathers of my recollections was a small section in a huge department store located about an hour-and-a-half south of our house. And we only went there once a year after a visit to the dentist!
It wasn’t until I had already left home that I realized where all of those wonderful books came from.
Most notably, the Book of the Month Club.
Can any of you remember it? And I’m not talking here about its current incarnation on the Internet. I mean the book club that once sent big, fat, deliciously overstuffed envelopes in the mail. The real mail of the “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” variety.
After consulting the Gale Directory of Company Histories, I learned that during the mid-1950s, when my parents were most actively stocking their shelves, the Book of The Month Club was selling nearly five million books a year. Its selections included:
“…ten Pulitzer Prize-winning books and works from five Nobel Prize-winning authors. There were about 800,000 members (and) … the number of books BOMC had placed in private homes exceeded by far the number of books in all public libraries and major universities in the United States put together.”
My parents’ book cases were an Aladdin’s Cavern of literature. They were filled with the works of John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, Leon Uris, Lin Yutang, Alan Paton, Harper Lee, Daphne du Maurier, John O’Hara, Nelson Algren, James Michener, Irving Stone, Herman Wouk, and hundreds of others, including the Classics.
As I was to learn much later, what made this great variety of authors possible (or impossible to avoid), was that book club members received a book every month at a nice discount, regardless of who wrote it, with the simple stipulation that they purchase a minimum of four books every year.
Those big fat BOMC envelopes bulged with a smorgasbord of offers, including the featured selection, dozens of alternate picks, special offers, book descriptions, and biographical minutia of every kind. After reviewing the envelope’s contents, which I suspect my parents never did, it was the member’s obligation either to mail back a notice advising, “Please don’t send any books,” or to buy an alternate selection, or to do nothing, in which case the featured book was automatically sent.
In terms of wedding oneself to the written word, if you did not specifically decline that month’s selection, it was marriage by default.
Which, I believe, is how my mother and father built their multi-faceted and fabulously edifying collection. Reading through their shelves, I learned how to fall in love with an Irish alcoholic in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I learned how to build a housing project that I would later blow up in The Fountainhead. I learned how to steal a loaf of bread and starve romantically in Les Miserables. And I learned how to stage an insurrection aboard a World War II minesweeper in The Caine Mutiny.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I joined the Book of the Month Club myself. I, however, never amassed a meaningful library. After I read a book, I always passed it on to a sibling, a parent, or a friend. But … and here is my confession … I got much, much more than my money’s worth.
The way the book club worked was that if a member could induce someone else to join, he would receive three, four, or sometimes even five free books as a reward! All he had to do was fulfill his obligation to buy four books a year, and live happily ever after.
So, of course, I would join the club, recommend a friend to join (myself under a different name), buy four books, get five free books, resign from the club under my first name, fulfill my obligation under my second name, recommend myself for membership under yet a third name, get five more free books, and so on.
It was a lonely life for me when I was young and brave and struggling to sell my first novel; I had little to look forward to in my lean and mean five-flight walkup (everything came in fives in those days). Except for two things:
Letters from home.
And the curiously eclectic, sometimes brilliant, sometimes bad, but always interesting selections that I received from the Book of the Month Club.
Every four weeks, like clockwork.
Literature (back then) was a motivator, a teacher, a lover, and a friend. My mailbox was always full of books.
Life was good.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2014