A devotion to reading may be an inherited trait

March 20, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

ABOUT THREE months ago I passed a black box through a Plexiglas security window at the Comcast office on the ground floor of the old Seton Psychiatric Institute. Cut me off cable TV, I told the clerk.

I have never looked back. I may even junk my 1986 Montgomery Ward TV set too, but it still plays.

I decided that instead of paying $40-plus a month for the services, I could divert that amount toward orchestra seats at musical comedies and plays and, importantly, do more daily reading.

For the past 90 days I've had nothing but pleasure as I've plowed through my mysteries, biographies and history.

I should have known better. I was taught by two printed-word addicts. I can see my mother, Stewart Kelly, and her Aunt Cora, each huddled under a bright bridge lamp (both had bad eyesight), one hand on a book, the other clenching, respectively, a Lucky Strike and a Chesterfield. At these times, it was not a good idea to disturb them.

My friend Josh Pons recalled my mother at a crab feast. She liked to be around people, but she always had a paperback, usually second-hand and chewed up, reading while others drank and smashed crabs.

While she was a shopper, she would not spend hours looking for books. She liked library copies and librarians' endorsements. She was thrifty with her book purchases because she went through plenty of pages a day.

When she found an author she liked, such as Anne Tyler, she allotted herself only a set amount of pages per day. She liked what she read too much.

She also liked her newspapers, and preferred the old first edition of this paper, which she read at 10 at night. She could not stand H.L. Mencken but delighted in Frank R. Kent's commentary.

I can't say she accumulated a great library, but she did have a knockout case full of much reverenced children's books, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham and N.C. Wyeth, which she read to my siblings and me. She also loved Old Testament tales. I can still hear her reading of Moses and Daniel.

Somewhere along the line, I developed a healthy literary curiosity. I read a book and want to know more about its author. I then read the author's autobiography, biography or the letters. That's not enough. I like to visit the home and the haunts too, the more distant and exotic the better.

I once even once stumped a London cabbie when I asked for 22 Cresswell Place. There, so the biographers say, Agatha Christie wrote some of her best early crime fiction. We eventually found the little mews house, and to my delight, there was absolutely no blue porcelain historical marker on it.

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