The Book Meme: Day 28

Day 28 - First favorite book or series obsession

There are certainly a lot of possibilities here, so to some degree the hardest task is figuring out the chronology. I know I did not get into Lewis or Tolkien until 5th grade at the absolute earliest, and Le Guin came sometime after that. I suspect I was probably 11 when I started reading Doc Savage novels. If I go before that, I'm probably looking at the things I used to order from Scholastic Book Services.

Scholastic was an absolute godsend, giving students the chance to pick books to own--not just read--for a ridiculously low price. I remember paying 35 cents for books, and I think a few shorter ones may have been 25 a pop. As a result, I ordered a book or two or three pretty much every time the teacher handed out the catalog. Titles included The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and Mr. Pudgins and Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Black and Blue Magic and various other delights, including Beverly Cleary's tales of Henry Huggins and the Quimby sisters. But the series that grabbed me the hardest, without question, was a series of mystery tales by Donald K. Sobol, a series which debuted the same year I did, 1963, with the publication of Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

If you haven't read them, allow me to introduce you to young Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, ten-year-old son of the town police chief, whose youthful but capacious memory and ability to analyze information allows him to serve as the scourge of the criminal underworld, or the nearest equivalent that the small town of Idaville has to offer. In addition to helping his father solve crimes at the dinner table, Encyclopedia hangs out his shingle to make a little cash as a consulting detective, assisted by the powerful fists of his friend and bodyguard Sally Kimball. In his capacity as the president of the Brown Detective Agency (25 cents, no case too small) he helps the kids of Idaville get back their stolen merchandise from the Tigers, the local gang of juvenile delinquents, led by the Jughead-hatted and improbably named Bugs Meany.

The Encyclopedia Brown books have inspired a number of other books on the same themes, including a terrible rip-off that I wrote and illustrated in 5th grade: Computer Jones, in which a boy detective with a Jackson Five-esque afro solves a dognapping by recognizing that the basenji is a breed that doesn't bark. You'll get much more enjoyment out of Brown Harvest, Jay Russell's noir novel of a boy detective grown up and returned to his hometown, where everyone seems to be a former child detective. If you liked the Hardy Boys or Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew, you'll definitely enjoy this Hammett-style treatment of them.

The genius of Sobol's creation is that it can be compartmentalized very easily. Every chapter is a separate mystery, and every one ends with the central mystery boiled down to a single question, which is essentially a variation on "How did Encyclopedia know?" Then, at the end of the book, Sobol provides the solution for each mystery on its own page, so that you don't have to read about the next case's solution until you're done reading that case.

The appeal to me was extremely straightforward. The books allowed me to see my own bookwormish tendency to absorb facts as not merely acceptable but actually heroic. If knowing something could help you see the flaws in a crook's alibi or recognize a contradiction in a historical account or even just put a bully in his place, then the acquisition of knowledge was worth any amount of teasing from your peers! 

And yeah, I got that, in significant amounts. I still recall the time my friend Bruce and I were making our way back from a neighborhood game of football, usually played in the big front yard of a well-off gentleman named Watts Hill, who had given us blanket permission to use it. Bruce was a talented athlete, and years later he would become the starting quarterback at Chapel Hill High, but even in elementary school, his talent was noteworthy. As his nearest neighbor of the same grade, I was a frequent playmate, and it's fair to say that Bruce was the one who taught me to play basketball--well, Bruce and the Dean Smith Basketball Camp--but he was also a source of torment at times. Not only was he bigger and stronger and more athletic, he was inclined to make me feel bad about my reading habits, which were (particularly compared to his own) voracious. That day, on the way back from Watts Hill's yard, I was analyzing the game we'd played and my own contributions to it, and I took a moment to voice some pride in my abilities as a receiver: "One thing I can say is I've got good hands."

Bruce smirked and shot back, "All your hands can do is turn pages."

He was wrong, though it took me a while to really understand that, and I know now that it may have stemmed from his own lack of success in the classroom, at least compared to mine. But the comment stung, as you might guess from the fact that it has stuck with me for more than forty years.

Luckily, I had a vision, the vision of Encyclopedia Brown saving the day, over and over again, through pure intellect. For me, that was as good as watching Superman or Spider-Man do it--better, even, because working for the Brown Detective Agency seemed more possible. And that's one reason why I've never given up on the idea that there is something valuable, perhaps even noble, in learning. I haven't solved any crimes that I know of, but if the opportunity arises, I am not going to let the old firm down.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 3, 2018 11:10 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 27 was the previous entry in this blog.

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