My family didn’t own many books when I was growing up. That was what public libraries were for, declared my father, who laid down the law in such matters. Why spend money on a book you’d read only once?
He made one big exception: Somehow, he’d learned that the Los Angeles public school system gave away books that were no longer fit for classroom circulation, and he’d go to those giveaways and come home with an armful of free, slightly battered textbooks.
I still own, and cherish, one of the books he salvaged: Adventures in American Literature, published by Harcourt, Brace & Company.*
It was intended for long-ago high school English classes, but I was probably only 10 or so when I started picking my way through it, oblivious to its out-of-date-ness, choosing whatever seemed exotic (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards, filled me with delicious terror, as did Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”—the very first selection in the book!) or accessible (“Sixteen,” by Maureen Daly, a huge success when it was originally published in 1938) or funny (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Gleanings from the Devil’s Dictionary”). The book even includes the complete text of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which I read over and over, imagining how the characters looked and sounded. The questions and prompts and the end of each entry nudged me toward deeper appreciation, but mostly I read for simple pleasure. The book was aptly titled: American literature was indeed a terrific adventure.
Now a new book, The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language, brings a similar sense of discovery and delight to new generations of readers.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of The People’s Tongue from the publisher, Restless Books (nice name!).