The Ability to Read

For my Father, E. E. Chávez


Have you ever rightly considered what the mere ability to read means? That it is the key which admits us to the whole world of thought and fancy and imagination? To the company of saint and sage, of the wisest and wittiest at their wisest and their wittiest moments? That it enables us to see with the keenest eyes, hear with the finest ears and listen to the sweetest voices of all time? —James Russell Lowell

Books have always been a part of my life. My father read to my sister, Margo, and I as children. The memory of sitting on the large, warm burgundy arm of that sturdy old chair in our living room is always fresh and accessible. Books have given me a memory of who I was as a child and who I am now, a woman always looking backward and forward in time to those places and people — many of them real, many imagined — all present and fleshed-out in the memory of creation.

Magic and mystery existed in the stories my father told us of the giant twin brothers, Hilo and Milo, as they wandered the earth — crossing the southwest in enormous strides, hopping over the Grand Canyon — and then traveling back home, their home and mine, the desert of New Mexico, after a short walk-about in a world my father made real for us. These imaginings later became my children’s book, The Grand Adventures of The Two Giant Brothers Hilo and Milo.

As I looked wide-eyed and expectant with wonder at the drawings of Maxfield Parrish in my children’s books, “The Arabian Nights and Poems of Childhood,” I was mesmerized with not only the Dinkey-Bird poem set in the land of Wonder-Wander, but by Parrish’s soaring imagination that matched my own.

               Speed, little dreams, your winging

               To that land across the sea

               Where the Dinkey-Bird is singing

               In the amfalula tree!

— Eugene Field


I never knew what an amfalula tree was, and yet I did. I knew other, brighter and better worlds existed out there — worlds imagined and longed for. Worlds available to me at any time and held sacred, even now.

I was predisposed to be a writer. I was first a reader, and for that I thank my father, the storyteller extraordinaire, for his vocal theatrics and rapid-fire imagination. My father had unparalleled Little Lulu and Sluggo voices that my sister and I delight in remembering to this day.

My mother was the teacher, practical, cultured, always challenging, as any good teacher would and should be. “How do you spell _____?” I would ask her, and not giving any answers, ever, she would make me sound out the syllables of the word in question. I remember quizzes at home, work sheets from school, the words of the day and week, in English and Spanish.

In the summertime, in that expansive time of supposed vacation and rest, a book-worm sheet was a requirement. I kept a tally of all books read, and for each book a segment of that ever-present and looming bookworm’s body was colored in Crayola. Each segment represented a book read, finished, completed, enjoyed. My bookworms were always filled, and I might complete several sheets each summer. I still have a number of those sheets or variations, and I still treasure them.

I recall large expanses of many days spent reading — in bed, in chairs, in cars, at relatives’ houses, most particularly on those trips to visit family in far west Texas. My Tía Chita’s library was extensive and eclectic, and it was the focal centerpiece in her living room. Large wooden bookshelves lined the back wall facing the long, hot summer road that led to Big Bend Park. My aunt and uncle owned the Madrid Grocery Store, and they were readers. The selections from their shelves, not confined to the giant ones in the front room, but in each bedroom and in the hallway, offered classic fare in many languages, as our lives as border people were always a strengthening affirmation of who we were.

One of my Texas cousins became a priest, and it was proudly stated that he spoke and read nine languages. Another cousin became an artist and arts professor, and another a historian. Nothing and everything was expected of us, which is a good way to grow up, knowing that all is possible.

Books gave me the bravado to become. What I found in books was love for myself and others. Books gave me empathy for the small and the smallest, for the faraway and the near, for the exterior and the interior.

In those days, I created my own library cards on sheets of paper which I then notarized with my father’s notary seal, oblivious in my 10-year-old’s understanding that to notarize any piece of paper other than official ones was illegal. My older sister, Faride, reminded me of this travesty several years ago. I still have that notary seal and treasure it.

My mother, later a single parent, would leave my younger sister and I at the library after school and on Saturdays, as she attended to her many side jobs — selling encyclopedias, teaching after-school Spanish classes, taking care of any number of elderly people, including my wheelchair-bound grandmother, and many of our helpers from México who were now family. Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces was a refuge for all of us. I read books there, checked many more out and was delinquent in returning most by their designated due dates.   

Our lives were topsy-turvy at times, but my stability and solidity were found in books—their wisdom, their imagination, and yes, their physical companionship. A book is a solid friend.

Recently, after a sudden rain, I found a group ARCs (Advanced Reader’s Copies, the book before the book, sent out to reviewers and bookstores by publishers) at my bookstore, Casa Camino Real, sitting limp and soggy on the bench in a room of the store. I raced to the kitchen and stuck them all in the freezer. The freezer? Yes! That is where you put a book that gets wet. The water and dampness will crystalize and if you catch a book early on, you can probably save it, or at least prevent major damage. Maybe not all, but most. There is nothing sadder than coffee-cup-stained covers or water-damaged edges, not to mention myriad food spots on a beloved book.

As my father, Mr. C. would say so eloquently, “Lordy Canordy!” What I have seen done to books defies the imagination. Libraries saved my life and yet, they are some of the worst offenders in book defilement, that and well-intentioned teachers with their heavy-handed, huge, permanent black markers and sticky, nearly impossible to remove gooey labels. (Try a hair dryer on those.)

In these days of my book life, I own a bookstore, which is every writer’s dream, or at least, mine.

I have seen the moldy, mildewed, foxed, torn, tattered, bumped, bent, dog-eared and just-plain ugly specimens of what were once good books. I have seen slight and excessive edgewear, shelf wear and rubbing. I know what constitutes a fine copy and its poor relative. I have thrown books away that I found distasteful and dark, as well as a large donation of moldy rotten books that traveled across countries, lived in a barn with mice and cockroaches and found their way into our bookstore. Once you have seen a cuca skid mark, you know the book is compromised.

I have learned to evaluate books, measure their height and width, find their provenance and make a judgement into each one’s overall condition in a world where a book is barter and trade, and often has a monetary value.

Last summer I attended a week-long book boot camp named CABS — the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar — and rigorously worked long hours to understand how you can tell if a 16th century manuscript is missing a leaf and how to discern if the signature is really John Steinbeck’s.

That intensive, grueling, fantastic, exhilarating and very exhausting week will always remain with me, as I handle each book with love and yes, wonder.

One of the seminar teachers, antiquarian bookseller Loren Bair, shared this advice: “Handle as many books as possible.” I appreciate his authentic love and respect for all books, and yes, it was a relief to spend time with kindred spirits to whom books are not burdensome. Too many people have entered my bookstore and sighed with angst and distaste over “having too many books.” I will never feel that way.

In this time of times, hold your books sacred. They, in turn, will succor and uplift you.

That little summer girl loved coloring another segment of that never-ending bookworm.

She still does.