I grew up in a vividly grim Bronx apartment, along with two overworked parents, three surly siblings, two unspayed cats, a long stream of disturbingly short-lived goldfish, a spindly geranium plant that must have been bred to survive the rigors of Pluto, and approximately 300 metric tons of cockroaches.
Luckily, our biomass was counterbalanced by the family bibliomass: the hundreds upon hundreds of books that lined the shelves of our living room. The complete works of Shakespeare, encyclopedias, all the Greek plays, and Boccaccio's The Decameron
, earthily illustrated by the great Rockwell Kent; and Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Charles Addams in a Dickensian twist called Dear Dead Days
that is still so dear to my not-yet-dead gaze; and D.H. Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, ee cummings, Story of O
. Oh the happy, groaning shelves of my home!
My parents were proud, greedy readers, and my father in particular, a brilliant but emotionally combustible man who'd dropped out of high school, viewed books as talismans, wine and wafers for the mind. And so, although my parents were far too harried to bother with the finer details of housekeeping—okay, we lived in a dump—when it came to the treatment of books, we were taught unabridged genuflection. To wit: You never deface a book or take it for granted. No scribbling in the margins or highlighting your favorite passages in neon chartreuse. No creasing over pages to keep your place or plunking an open book facedown on the table. No reading while eating or flossing or during commercial breaks on TV. When you're ready to read, really read, you sit down in a chair with a decent lamp by your shoulder, and you open your book, and you allow it to claim you, to swallow you whole.
These are some of the books that have absorbed me down to my stem cells and, in so doing, have made me feel more complete. Natalie Angier's most recent book is
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science .
What's on Natalie Angier's Bookshelf? Read more!