An Essay by Erika Swyler
That I’d be a book person was inevitable; my parents were readers and their taste was eclectic. Books were always in the house. My grandfather had, at one point, taught English at Middlebury, and some of those books were his. Some were my father’s from when he was a child. He’d gotten bookplate stickers and put them on the front covers of his hardbacks. For years I didn’t understand that wasn’t where they were supposed to go. I still think of books as objects on which to proudly stake your claim.
No books were forbidden. Some were strategically placed on high shelves, but that only made them more intriguing. There were dusty paperbacks my parents had bundled with butchers’ twine and stuffed in a dark corner of the basement. They looked dangerous, slightly seedy, and of course I read them all. The fastest way to get me to want anything is to put it just out of my reach. I don’t know how old I was when I first read In Cold Blood or Last Exit to Brooklyn, but I’m certain I was still only watching movies that were rated G. I picked up Günter Grass’s The Flounder based on the cover, a foolproof selection method, though I had no real concept of history, let alone gender dynamics.
The things I was too young for did me no damage, flying happily right over my head. But I delighted in the fact that there were books about difficult things, my parents read them, and I was getting some sort of insider information. I felt I’d glimpsed adulthood, like sneaking a sip of beer, which tasted terrible but was delightful for being forbidden.
But this is the way of books. One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to my sister and me. She’d grown bored with children’s fare, and desperately needed to entertain herself. And yes, much of the humor was beyond my grasp. But my mother had a terrific time reading it, and my love of science fiction, comedy, and books without pictures was born.
The books I grazed on seemed like a roadmap to understanding my parents, how their minds worked, and all the parts of being a grownup that children can’t grasp. I thought if I read my parents’ books, I’d understand what it was they were up to. Much later, I did. What they were about was parenting me to be curious about the world—the business of raising a bibliophile.
Erika Swyler is the author of The Book of Speculation, a national bestseller, Indie Next pick, and a Buzzfeed Best Book of the Year. Her forthcoming novel, Light from Other Stars (Bloomsbury, May 2019), is about a young girl and an invention that alters the fabric of time. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Catapult, VIDA, The New York Times, and elsewhere.