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The Queen of Stuff

November 5, 2009

I collected my first stuff at the dump. My grandpa’s best friend, Whitey, lived there in a shantytown that had grown up around the ever-growing mounds of rubbish outside of town. There was good stuff there—lots of it—piled around the edges, left there for others to pick over by people who could still remember the Great Depression and couldn’t bear to trash things that might be of use. Grandpa could fix just about anything, and he scavenged there regularly, looking for parts he could use to fix other people’s cars. We bartered too, taking food we’d gleaned from fields near our house to trade for all kinds of things that grandpa might find use for.

I stored the stuff I found at the dump in the basement of my grandparents’ house, in a room my Aunt Mildred called the Casbah. None of those treasures survived long. My grandmother didn’t approve of my visits to the dump and especially didn’t want me bringing things home that she considered junk. Grandpa was good at hiding things. He stored his chocolate drops in the glove compartment of the car along with his Old Gold cigarettes, and hid boxes of gingersnaps in the trunk of his car. He helped me hide my stuff, the dolls with missing limbs, magazines I created imaginary families from, broken-backed books, and games with missing pieces. I am reminded of those early days of my collecting because my office flooded today and lots of my stuff got wet.

I’ll be losing books in the deluge (the water came from the heating system in the ceiling) and some of them are irreplaceable. I might be able to find them on the internet, but it wouldn’t be the same. I delighted in using a book I collected in junior high school as a reference in my dissertation (Elwood Cubberly’s 1920 History of Education in the United States). It’s available as a free Ebook now, but I still remember buying it in an Ojai, California, bookstore where books were piled haphazardly inside and out and you never knew what you might find. I bought my favorite book of advice there for a quarter, Plain Points on Personal Purity or the Startling Sins of the Sterner Sex. It’s a nineteenth century warning to the kinds of cads who stand on street corners waiting for an “errant breeze” to blow a young lady’s dress up so they can see her ankles.

I am the Queen of Stuff and I live in The House of Stuff. Lots of that stuff is books. So what does this have to do with being successful in school? For me, plenty. I’ve made my living with words most of my life and I owe my vocabulary to the books I’ve read. I can thank Agatha Christie’s mysteries for my ability to figure out who the villain is in every movie or television show I watch long before the big reveal. I know how to use a semicolon because I’ve seen so many of them in print. Words make music and reading has taught me to sing along. I’ve formulated my beliefs in part because of the reading that’s challenged and supported me. If you want to be successful in school, reading beyond your textbooks matters.

What do you love to read? Why?

Life-transforming ideas have always come to me through books.
• bell hooks

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