A Book That Changed My Life

I was in Texas at the time but a very long way from writing a novel about a series of gender crimes committed against a woman. I was maybe four years old. The book was a worn, hard-back children’s book, about an inch thick, bound in dark blue cloth and frayed along the edges. It was *Cobi Camel,* by Nell Smidell Nesbitt, not a picture book, rather the kind now called a “chapter book”—that might’ve been why it intrigued me—and it was published, as I learned just now online, in 1944.

I had seen this book around the house long before I was allowed to see inside it. It belonged to my older sister, who was protective of her things and her prerogatives against my encroachments. Though we weren’t poor, we lived in an economy of scarcity: our parents had come of age during the Great Depression, didn’t know how long the good times would last, and—though both educated at UT-Austin—were strict, Victorian, and emotionally restrained.

On this day, possibly because I coveted this book and certainly because our mother was busy, she set my sister, who was in first grade, to read to me from it. We were in a chilly, scarcely furnished downstairs room we called “the sewing room,” where my mother’s sewing machine sat on a card table. This was in a house in Ft. Worth my parents were buying on my father’s slim salary working as what, back when all journalists were print journalists, he called “a newspaperman,” though he, and we, knew women reporters.

I remember a neatly made-up Army surplus cot in the room, of the sort we children also had in our shared room upstairs. I remember the dusty smell of an organdy curtain, although anything dusty in a house my mother kept is hard to believe.

I was sitting in a child-sized Mexican chair, on a woven raffia seat with a back of slats and turned posts, painted red and yellow with green twining leaves and red and blue flowers. My sister sat on a small chair beside me. I remember nothing about Cobi Camel or his adventures, no word of the book except the word, and. “See,” my sister said—I knew the alphabet—“those letters make the word, and.”
And at that moment, I got it, what reading was, and how I could do it for myself: all I had to do was know what the rest of those words meant. I speak as a writer when I call it the most important discovery of my childhood.

I became a reading child, that familiar type of the dysphoric escapist: denizen of the Book Mobile, haunter of neighbors’ houses where the children were grown and their books remained on shelves, devourer of books I got for Christmases and birthdays and by the stack from the children’s book reviewer at The Ft. Worth Press, when she was through with them. In memory I spent whole summers—when I wasn’t at the Girl Scout Camp, Timberlake—lying in a chair reading, and my parents, who tried to control many things about me, never said word one against anything I read. My mother was confident that if it was too old for me, I wouldn’t understand it. Her belief opened the world to me.