I come from a family of bookworms who feel books are more important than matching upholstered armchairs, over-priced Ben Shahn lithographs or dining room chairs. My father has amassed a collection of first editions and comparative literature periodicals that two universities have fought over for many years. That is, until one of these institutions of heady learning went belly up and now survives with barely enough cash to feed their pocket-protected freshman hot breakfasts and empty promises. The other university simply never calls back.
It was only natural that I would marry a man who enjoys listening to Pete Townsend studio sessions while reading T.C. Boyle novels with an expression on his face that resembles an early morning post coital smirk. This unhealthy and overrated relationship with the written word does not end with us. Otto has four bookshelves and a book mobile overflowing with delicious stories of cowardly dragons, dirt- filled dump trucks and farting dogs. Like an unemployed actress can recite the cemetery monologue from Steel Magnolias, Otto can quote The Adventures of Curious George. Otto has thankfully come to the realize that the man in the yellow hat has bad eyes and poor fashion sense which makes me think that Otto is shockingly perceptive, wickedly aware and wonderfully voracious in his reading habits and judgmental ways.
The other day he looked up at a high shelf in his room where the big boy books are kept and spotted The Dangerous Book For Boys. This is a book he has never shown any interest in as it is geared toward the more literate, fourth grader type who thrives on long-winded sentences and the unsupervised use of scissors. For those unfamiliar with this immensely popular Amazon purchase, it is a cool, red encyclopedia for young a boy that covers everything from how to build a tree house to the brief history of artillery. Chapters like “The Rules of Cricket” and “Hunting and Cooking Rabbit” are clearly signs that this tome is, in fact, British and carnivorous in every way. Due to its ominous title and confusing references The Dangerous Book For Boys crossed the pond and made it big in America, becoming one of the highest selling children’s books in years.
When Otto was first born, Dave read a review about Dangerous and felt he had to get a first edition to give Otto just in case we sent him away to a British boarding school. He searched in vain, finding only second and third editions printed in Uruguay with covers made from recycled toilet seats. Feeling defeated and acutely American, he had almost given up when my librarian, cat detective mother swooped in and found a copy in a far away land known as England.
The book sat untouched all these months until a few days ago when Otto saw it and begged me to read it to him while I cradled him in his fleece football pajamas. I was thrilled he took an interest in such an advanced book and happy that I too, could spend some time familiarizing myself with what young male Brits read while eating scones with cream and not flossing.
We opened the book together and read a few pages with groovy diagrams and photos of random objets d’art. It was fascinating to learn about all the dark places one could stick a cricket mallet while eating Bovril. Or the preferred dimensions of a root cellar in 216 BC. But what really flipped my switch was the delightful and informative section on how best to impersonate a royal family member while flowing with the bastard blood of a Scotsman. I read that section three times before Otto saw a photo of a big-boned British woman wearing what appeared to be a crocheted tablecloth while balancing a bejeweled crown upon her keg of a skull. He pointed his finger right at her chest and said, “Pretty lady, Mommy.” I cautiously agreed and scribbled myself a mental note to make an appointment to have his eyes checked.
The woman he was so smitten with was Queen Victoria, the patron queen of bad life partners. The painting showed her perched on her thrown gazing off longingly in the direction of what I assumed was a lush horse pasture filled with stallions. I asked Otto if he wanted me to read about Queen Vicky’s reign and why she supported animal husbandry and he nodded enthusiastically. I picked the beginning of one paragraph that seemed to be dense with historical events and without reading it first, like any good mother would have done, I began my lesson for the day.
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 occurred when Sepoy soldiers rebelled against the imposition of British culture. For example, female infanticide had been outlawed and ‘suttee’, the practice of burning a live widow with her dead husband, was also banned.
After trying to think of five words that rhymed with ‘suttee’ to use in a limerick, I closed the book before Otto could inquire as to what infanticide meant. To distract him I quickly picked up his Curious George anthology and opened it to one of Otto’s favorite stories. There, sitting on the sofa in his room, the two of us read about the time George was kidnapped in Africa by a man with a yellow hat and unwillingly dragged to America to live in a dirty New York City zoo. I stopped reading and I started writing.
There once was a boy who read
Hundreds of books filled with dread.
His mother was shocked
And promptly cock blocked
That shit before he went to bed.