Sunday, January 11, 2009

August 2007: Summer Reading

My August letters seem to have a more reminiscent theme. I have written about Summer Festivals, the Atomic Bombs of World War II, and last year Porches. This month, I will continue that trend.

They call August the Dog Days of Summer. A website defines the Dog Days as “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere - It is apparent that August makes up the bulk of the time between “July and early September.” There was an alternate definition provided as well, “a period of stagnation or inactivity.”

August was certainly the Dog Days when I was growing up in Detroit. It was hot and humid. Boy Scout Summer Camp was over, we usually took vacations in July, swim lessons at Cooley High School were over or winding down, and other than cutting lawns, hanging out with buddies, and some pickup baseball games there was nothing to do. The Dog Days of Summer were a great time, however, to read.

Memory can be a patchwork and in that selective patchwork I remember reading on the front porch of our Strathmoor house. The image that is etched in my most pleasant memories is sitting on the glider of that porch reading.

Back then, summer reading lists from the schools simply did not exist, at least, not in the mid-1960 Detroit Public Schools. So, I was left to my taste and choices.

I recall one summer deciding to learn about the secrets of the atom, nuclear bombs and nuclear energy. I must have been between fifth and sixth grade. I left the shade to my bedroom window with an eastern exposure open enough so that the rising sun would wake me up at dawn. I would then read books about “the atom.”

Other than that, I remember reading stories. They were novels but I never called them that. I simply called them books. I favored adventure stories written especially for young teens or pre-teens. I read the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and even Nancy Drew. I enjoyed the perils and adventures of these young sleuths. There was no limit how trouble would always find them and how they would always solve the crime and win the day. They were great escapes and excellent reading practice, regardless of what teachers and other adults might have said. They were also great fun.

There was a series I could not get enough of back then. The funny thing is that I cannot remember the name of the books or the author. We could attribute this to being on This Side of Fifty, but that would be a bit unfair. I have been trying to find out the name of this series for at least thirty years.

What I do remember is that they were set in England; they were about a group of five or six schoolmates that all went to the same boarding school. There was a mix of girls and boys in the group. Their adventures were intriguing and either took place on their holidays. These books were at least twenty years old when I read them in the mid-1960s. So they were written in the 1930s or 40s.

The kids in this series were bright, charming, there was a hint of romance, and, certainly, taking daring risks against the advice of parents and teachers to solve the various crimes and capers. They always seemed about the age that I was whenever I was reading them. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew seemed to have this same timeless quality.

These types of books are immensely appealing. Teachers and parents are never sure whether to support the addiction to them or to criticize them as not being literature. The adult equivalents written by the likes of Robert Ludlum, and Nelson DeMille pose the same dilemma. Devoted fans love them, but critics fret about the enduring literary value.

I would love to find the name of the series I read growing up. I would love to get my hands on any book in the series and read it again today. I am very curious to see what I would think of it today, at this age.

I read every one of these series I could borrow from the Monnior Branch of the Detroit Public Library. The Monnior Branch was on the corner of Schaefer and Grand River in Detroit. It was maybe a mile or two from our house on Strathmoor. My mother first took me there when I was in first or second grade. I got a library card and we checked out books. At first, it was a passion for Dr. Seuss and then Henry Huggins that attracted me to the library.

The Monnior Branch was in an old red brick house. It was right next to the Police Station that served our neighborhood. At first, the place seemed large, almost endless to me. By the time we moved, the place had somehow gotten a bit smaller and cozier. It was an old fashioned library. There were no records, CDs, filmstrips or computers. There were just books. I do not even recall newspapers and periodicals. Most definitely there was no air conditioning. In the summer, they simply opened the windows.

After the age of twelve, I used to ride my bike to and from the library during summer vacation. I liked the independence of running my own errands. My bike did not have a basket and I did not use a backpack, so I would only take out one or two books at a time so I could still steer the bike without too much difficulty. I enjoyed going to the library and would do so four or five times a year. I never really got to know any of the staff except to say hello and exchange greetings.

In the summer of 1968, I had just graduated from the ninth grade at Cadillac Junior High School and awaiting my start at Cass Technical High School in the fall. While at the library, I saw for the first time in my years of frequenting the place, a young fellow about my age re-stocking books. I went up to the head librarian and inquired if I might be able to work there. To me it was a natural. I liked being around books. It was also a precursor to my current interests in Logistics where warehouse management and re-stocking play an important role. The librarian was quite pleasant and gave me a very short one page application to fill out. In January of 1969, I received a letter asking me to come in for an interview as they had an opening. We were just in the process of moving from Detroit and Cass Tech to Livonia and Stevenson High School. I had to call the head librarian and say no thank you. I was a bit sad to leave Cass Tech but more sad to have to pass up a job at the Monnior Branch of the Detroit Public Library.

As it turns out, the day I applied for the job was probably the last time I visited Monnior. There is no listing for that branch on the Detroit Public Library website. There is no reference for it when I google it. It seems the Monnior Branch of the Detroit Public Library is no more. Pity.
For this letter, I actually have been trying to find out the history of the Monnior Branch. When did it open? When did it close? What was the house before it became a library? Could I get a photo of the building to use in this letter? On the Detroit Public Library web page there is history tab. While informative, the history provided was general and did not get down to the branch by branch history. On the Contact Us page, they had phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the management team. So, I e-mailed the Director of Public Affairs. I am part of the public, so I thought this would be a good place to start. As I send this letter out, I have yet to hear back.

As the library did not carry The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, I had to actually buy those books. There was a little book store on Fenkell. It was a small shop from the era well before the mega Borders and Barnes and Noble stores. I cannot recall the name of this store front shop with the owner as the only employee. I used to save money from cutting lawns and allowances and bike over to this shop to buy a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew book.

I did not care if I could buy these books used or exchange them with friends. My classmate Glenn Baugh actually lent me several of the Tom Swift series.

Once I even read a Zane Grey book that was lying around the house. It was OK but I could not project myself into the characters as I could with these other teen adventure/mystery books. So, I have never read another.

This month I read another book in the same genre of those teen adventure stories I so fondly remember: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This is the seventh and final installment of that series of this immensely popular series. I have read every book and seen every movie in that series. The movies are good but I actually like the books better.

The Harry Potter books are published by Scholastic Books. They are aimed at youngsters about the same age I am reminiscing about. While that is the target audience, the books are immensely popular with adults as well. On a recent vacation, when I was reading the book. I saw several other grown men reading the book as well.

It is more than a series, it is a franchise. There are Harry Potter movies based on the books and no end to logo merchandise of every kind one can think of. The author J.K. Rowling has become wealthy from this.

This latest Harry Potter book was the lead review in the New York Sunday Books supplement on August 12, 2007. The review was by none other than Christopher Hitchens the renowned political columnist and author. He was the keynote speaker at a Children of Armenia Fund banquet for which I was the emcee. I might have normally skipped the review but this time, given this personal connection, I most certainly read it. Mr. Hitchens also pointed out the similarity of the Potter series to the teenage adventure stories I have referred to. He recalled an essay by George Orwell exploring the addictive quality to these kinds of boarding school adventure stories. It seems Ms. Rowling definitely resurrected this genre in a most impressive way. She has appealed to the youth in a big way but also to the adult audience. Other’s have tried to capitalize using the Rowling model. The Lemony Snicket series comes to mind. But, this series has not captured the adult audience like the Potter series has.

There is also debate whether any of these books are good for children. Parents and other concerned adults, including teachers and clergy, get concerned whenever kids like these kinds of books to much. You hear that these kinds of adventure books are not really literature. They are the reading equivalent of fast food and empty calories. The religious right even worries about the sorcery and witchcraft that is central to the Potter series. I find myself on the side that anything that gets young people to read more and open their minds is a good thing. I also firmly believe that there are times when reading should just be entertaining and fun: especially when one is young, and especially in the summer. This is probably the reason every Harry Potter book has come out in the summer months. I am sorry the series has ended with this latest book.

There is one big difference between now and then. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the only book I have read this summer. It is not for a lack of wanting to read more, but more so finding the time to do so. I do read, but mostly read articles and essays from the New Yorker. Certainly, the writing is superb and the subject matter is usually compelling. But, the New Yorker is designed to be read in short spurts, it is ideal for commuting by train. The magazine column size is ideal for folding the magazines into thirds, lengthwise, providing a most compact footprint when sitting in the middle seat of a three seat bench. It is also perfect for bathroom reading (which may be a subject all of its own in some future e-letter).

I do, however, continue to both buy and receive, as gifts, books that I truly want to read. I have a rather large pile of them. I find it amazing that I have not read Peter Balakian’s Burning Tigris, Vartan Gregorian’s memoirs, Elif Shafak’s Bastard of Istanbul, or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. They sit, patiently, on the bookshelf awaiting my retirement.


  1. Hi Mark!

    I enjoyed reading your post, especially about Monnier Library, which I also used to frequent in the 50s and 60s. My family also lived on Strathmoor, near Plymouth Rd., and I went to Cass in Science & Arts in 1968. I am now an art librarian and work at the Univ. of Southern California.


  2. Hi mark-- the series of books MAY have been by Enid Blyton, The castle of adventure, the island of adventure, etc., there were 6-7 books and they all had the word adventure in them. the characters were jack, lucyann, philip and dinah and they were british. I also remember the monnier library and lived at 15370 strathmoor until about 1960, so we may have been neighbors. What a trip!! I so miss the detroit I knew