The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

Chew Your Words Twenty Times Before Swallowing

I was a weird kid, living high in my head, with odd habits and interests. I already wrote about my bloodshot-eyed, jonesing-junkie sugar addiction here on the good Dr. Wilson’s blog, so I won’t go deeply into that. But strange things gave me pleasure, like sitting in those artificial environments created in furniture stores, where there might be a coffee table, couch and chairs with room dividers, with bookshelves holding books and limply “elegant” tchotchkes on the end tables, a strange simulacrum of a living room or den.

Whatever chink in my character, I enjoyed sitting in those airless regions and pretending this was my life, looking over my books and my staid furniture, while actual adult customers (and the salespeople) would eye me with mild alarm. Another thing that interested me back then was nice glassware, to the extent that I bought a HUGE brandy snifter, one that my 16-ounce RC Colas would barely make a dent in. At 10, I’d walk around my parents’ house, swirling my sweet beverage, hoping that someone would notice just how sophisticated I was.

That’s a long lead-up to what I actually wanted to discuss, which is loving words. In this case, I’m not talking about meanings; I’m referring to loving the feel of a word, its texture, whether it’s silky or scratchy, the odd combo of visual/visceral sensation you might get in your head from processing the very spelling of a word. That kind of word sensitivity started young in me too—maybe it was all those ice-cream brain freezes.

The Weight of Words
Anyway, I had an early awareness of the weight of words, and some I gravitated to some more so than others. For instance, words with “x” in them, like bollix or flummoxed. Do those give you the little frisson I’m alluding to? And how certain words feel just right in their denotation: queasy has that little lurch or drop in its letter construction—in its stomach—that is carried through in its definition. Or a word like morbid: it has a deliciously dark feel.

I’ve heard it said by some comedians that some words, by their letters alone, are funny. Words that start with “k” or the k sound, for instance. Probably why I like the sound of the word crapulous—or maybe it just harkens to my Coke-crapulous days behind a gargantuan brandy snifter.

Digging Through Your Dictionaries
I wrote an essay a while back for a magazine called Verbatim, about the crazy collection of dictionaries I had, and how fun it is to just flip through them and look for words that have a furry feeling, or a sinister sparkle, or a wry rictus. It’s a challenge to look through any dictionary page and not see some words that make you squint or grimace or grin.

Like your words ‘lectronic? There are bunches of word sites, but here are a couple of fun ones: wordnik and wordoid. Wordnik has a nice interactive aspect where you can upload your own usage notes, comments and citations to their word examples. Wordoid lets you play with made-up words. But don’t let your mother catch you.