Hylan Boulevard, the longest street in New York City, runs from Rosebank in the north of Staten Island to the South Shore fourteen miles away. Standing on the rocky beach in Rosebank you can see the entire harbor, including the New York City skyline, the orange Staten Island Ferry, and the towering Verrazano Bridge. On a knoll just off the boulevard sits the Alice Austen House, a Dutch Colonial house named after photographer Elizabeth Alice Austen (1866-1952). It is now a National Historic Landmark.
In my youth, I explored Austen House, which is located at 2 Hylan Boulevard. My grandmother’s house was only half a block away at 67 Hylan Boulevard, and my family would go there every Sunday afternoon for dinner. Sometimes, though, instead of playing at the Austen House, scouring the beach for shells, or even romping through the wild roses in my grandmother’s backyard with the boys she cared for (see “McNamara’s Boys”), I would spend hours down in the basement.
I’m not sure why, even now, but my grandmother’s basement was filled with books. They bulged out of bookcases and stood like paper stalagmites in piles all across the floor. At first, I found it difficult to get from one end of the room to the other. So, I cleared a path and rearranged the books so that I could sit down and put the books into an order other than by size or color. That meant opening them up and reading them.
And so my literary journey began, except it was hardly literary, since I was more interested in the age of the books and the smell of their bindings. The smell of a book was important to me. If it didn’t pass the sniff test (e.g., too much glue), I’d chuck it. In addition, many of the books dated from the mid-nineteenth century and were often untrimmed and had tissue paper separating the frontispiece from the title page, which fascinated me. Others–modern paperbacks–had their covers ripped off completely, which meant they had been discarded and the covers sent back to the publisher.
After months of sniffing and skimming my way through titles like Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Wuthering Heights (I had to look up wuthering), something happened. But, again, it wasn’t literary. I’d say it was more of an obsession (see Nine Lives). Side note: I am related to a woman who, family lore has it, suffered from OCD so much that they found her one day going up and down the street, disinfecting her neighbors’ doorknobs. This occurred pre-Covid but post-Spanish influenza.
My obsession involved neither Lysol nor Clorox, taking an academic turn instead. One of the bookcases contained a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britanica. So, I set myself the goal of reading it from A through Z. What else does an eleven-year-old boy do with himself in a basement? I had toyed with the idea of starting with R, since I had no idea how radios worked and was desperate to find out. The same with television. However, in retrospect it wouldn’t have made much difference, because I still don’t know how they work. I dove in, dutifully, obsessively, with Aardvark.
You can read in different ways, of course. In one way, you absorb information to achieve a fixed goal, e.g., repairing a washing machine, finding out how to assemble that bunk bed-desk combo from Ikea. Another way does not depend on reaching a goal at all. This represents the best kind of reading, for it deepens the mind and raises the soul beyond bunk beds. Beyond suffering, even. Ironically, it also helps you appreciate the people who have the technical skill to fix your washing machine or follow Ikea instructions.
It has taken me years to learn both ways of reading, particularly the non-purposeful way, which stirs up the imagination. And where would we be without imagination? Certainly not back at 67 Hylan Boulevard. I also treasure the experience in my grandmother’s basement for the three gifts it gave me of silence, stories, and space. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more intimate introduction to books.
Image credits: feature by Matthew Henry from Burst; rows of books by Leigh Cooper on Unsplash. This post is dedicated with love to Edgar Kendall V, grandma, and all the people who once inhabited 67 Hylan Boulevard. Special thanks to Ann Winters for the post suggestion.