My oldest niece went off to college this week. Inevitably, it’s made me think back to my own Freshman year.
It was my first time leaving home. For a kid from Queens, the ivy-covered campus, the Platonic ideal of an Eastern college, was as discombobulating as a trip to Oz. The entire student body, less than half the size of my NYC public high school, was made up of strangers who’d experienced very different lives from mine. Everyone of them, I assumed, would be smarter than I was.
My room, even after I’d unpacked and filled it with my things, felt empty of life. It was a small square but, even with my little rug in front of the iron bed and my posters on the wall, it seemed to echo. There was a pole-operated glass transom above my door, something I’d never seen before. Then there was the small metal safe-box that was bolted to the door beside the wardrobe; it didn’t seem particularly safe to me for anything except, assuming it was at least sufficiently insect-proof, my stash of spray cheese and Milano cookies. The communal bathroom—a row of stalls, a row of sinks, a row of showers—was down the linoleumed hall. Meals were peculiar dishes like Swiss Steak, eaten at refectory tables in the dark paneled dining hall. Classes, when they began, were small (12 or 15 students, rather than the 34-36 that had been standard for me K-12). Unlike the homely teachers I was used to, the ones who seemed like someone else’s mother or uncle, the professors were grand or cool or a combination of the two. And the work load was staggering. Read how much before the next class? Write how many pages??
That first semester, everything about the place was strange to me, with one exception: the college bookstore. From the first time that I understood how letters fitted together into words, reading was always my most beloved entertainment and my most dependable therapy. Considering my shallow purse, you might have expected the library to become my logical haven; but the gorgeous Gothic library, with its stacks and carrels, intimidated me. It glowed with a purposeful scholarship that felt far beyond my grasp. I spent many dogged hours there, but it was never home the way that the bookstore was. Once the first few weeks of term had passed, and the stacks of required volumes migrated from its tables to our dorm rooms, the bookstore was comforting in its familiarity. The shop was run by a pair of women who truly loved to read and who stocked it accordingly. Unlike those in the library, these books wore bright covers and friendly titles. As well as classics, and the contemporary books that people were talking about, there were plenty of lesser known volumes.
I found the shelves of children’s lit on one of my earliest visits to the bookstore. I assumed they were there for faculty children; but I came to learn that I was hardly original in reacting to sudden adulthood by reaching back to childhood. I splurged guiltily that day and scuttled back to my dorm, where I snuggled into the corner of my bed and returned to Narnia. On later visits, I dipped heavily into the mystery and science fiction shelves. I also discovered reissues of novels that had been popular in previous generations (I freely admit it: I have chosen a hell of a lot of books by their covers).
It wasn’t that I needed something to read. I had piles of required reading to plough through. What I needed was to read books the way I always had, for the pure enjoyment of it. I craved fiction, especially fiction that I wouldn’t be required to pull apart. There was freedom in knowing that the only person who cared that I was reading my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey books was my friend Jo back home, who was also reading them.
Some of the most significant reading that I did during my four years of college were the books I read when I was supposed to be studying. Whenever I needed a break from studies, when I had a broken heart, when I felt I was losing hold of who I was, I ran to the bookstore. It wasn’t long before the women who ran the shop started recommending books to me, and even holding new arrivals behind the counter with my name on them. When I graduated, we hugged and cried.
It’s difficult to remember exactly what I read when (it wasn’t until my Senior year that I thought I might want to look back on this someday and began keeping a record of what I read), but here are a few I can pin to that year. The links are to Amazon, but any bookstore or library should have all of these:
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle). Note that I’m linking you to the Kindle edition, because it costs less than a fancy coffee beverage. If you still haven’t read these stories, I’m hoping this cheap option will push you to finally do so.
- Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (L. Frank Baum). I first saw the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz on television when I was 5 or 6. Soon after that, I read the book for the first of many times. But until I got to college, I was woefully ignorant of all the other Oz books. I bought and read a bunch of them then. This one, with it’s direct connection to the first, was one of my favourites.
- The various volumes of “People” stories, by Zenna Henderson. This link will take you to a volume titled Ingathering, which is a compilation of all the stories Henderson wrote about refugees from a lost planet who find themselves on our earth. They appear human, but their longing for Home and their psychic abilities make them perpetual outsiders, ever seeking for their own. You can imagine how an eccentric college Freshman might over-identify!
- Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers). This is my very favourite of all the Wimsey books. If anything, I loved it more after spending a summer in Oxford, and even more after attending a recent college reunion of my own. If you’re not going to read all of the Wimsey books, you’ll better understand the emotional landscape of Gaudy Night if you precede it by reading Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.