I love jumping into puddles, sneaking into wardrobes and tugging on just the right candlestick to open the secret door behind the book case. Like a detective, I enjoy discovering clues. I never wanted to be Hansel or Gretel; I wanted to follow their breadcrumbs, find them inside the witch’s house and save the day before she baked ’em into pie.
Such portholes of adventure can be found in the most ordinary of places: in a library, in an old cemetery, in the classifieds, on the internet. You visit these spots, stumble upon a fact or feeling, then see where it leads you.
Here’s a trip I recently took. First, I went to the library and picked up the book, “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks” by Annie Spence. I’ve always had a passion for books about books, libraries, bookstores, authors and the love of reading, and this one featured the intriguing tagline: “A librarian’s love letters and breakup notes to the books in her life.”
Yep, I was sold. And so it went into my bag and eventually to the checkout counter.
When I returned home, I removed all my new library treasures from the bag and began stacking the books in the order I planned to read them. This arrangement can change, and often does, but I generally tend to organize my future reads by instinct. Once this book reached the top of my “To Be Read” pile, I decided it would be more enjoyable if I re-read “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury first. So back to the library I went.
Something many people don’t know about me is that I like book dedications. For years I’ve I collected ’em. Friends and acquaintances e-mail dedications to me. And while the dedication in “Fahrenheit 451” seemed a bit ordinary, I was still intrigued: “This one, with gratitude, is for Don Congdon.”
Now who the hell was Don Congdon? And what did he do to deserve the immortal gratitude of Ray Bradbury, one of the most warm and wonderful American writers of all time?
I must know. To the internet!
Of course, the first thing I found was an obituary. Turns out Congdon, who died in 2009, was the literary agent who spotted Bradbury’s talent early in both their careers.
“I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife,” Bradbury said in a speech to the National Book Foundation in 2000. “So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes.”
Congdon also repped many other celebrated authors, including William Styron, Jack Finney, Evan S. Connell, William L. Shirer and David Sedaris. I recognized all of those names, except Evan S. Connell. Who the heck was that?
More research led me to this article by Meg Wolitzer, which oddly enough, appeared just last week in The New York Times. Wolitzer praised Connell’s writing, in particular his 1959 novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” a book I had never heard of. Reading this essay, I learned why Wolitzer loved it so. Yet it was the intro to her essay that stuck with me:
When my older son started kindergarten, his teacher asked the class how many of them knew how to read. A few kids raised their hands, and Miss D said, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” Then she asked how many of them couldn’t read, and the rest raised their hands. “Oh,” she said, “that’s wonderful too. Because now you will get to learn how to read with Miss D.”
This story reminded me of Mrs. Jarrett, my mean kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Jarrett couldn’t stand me because I was apparently one of the only kids in class who already knew how to read. Most of the other 4- and 5-year-old students hadn’t even learned the alphabet yet and she resented the fact that I did know it, along with how to write my name, how to count and how to identify shapes and colors. Needless to say, I was incredibly bored by her lessons — and had no problem saying so.
Since she had nothing new to teach me, I talked. This disrupted the class and prompted her to send me to the bad-kid’s desk. It was like any other desk, except the sides and front were walled in by cardboard blocks designed to look like red bricks. Such isolation simply made me want to read even more.
Whatever happened to mean old Mrs. Jarrett? Well, I had no luck finding out, mostly because I couldn’t recall her first name. What I did remember, though, was going home halfway through the day and hoping against hope that when I arrived, there would be a “special” peanut butter and jelly sandwich waiting for me.
What made it so special? Well, back in the late 1970s, there was this product*** that combined peanut butter and grape jelly in the same jar! They weren’t mixed together — oh no, that would’ve been gross — they were striped inside the container so the design looked like harlequin pants. What the heck was it called? And do they still make it? I must know!
So down the next rabbit hole I go.
***It’s called Goober, and based on the reviews, I’m not the only one who fondly remembers it.)