Recently, while going through some boxes I had long ago stored and forgotten about, I uncovered a set of slender volumes. The sight of them - complete and in good condition, though well-read - brought back a flood of memories. Each was simply and unpretentiously titled "The American Heritage Book of the Presidents and Famous Americans" and published during the 1960s. But their uniqueness lay in where I had obtained them: the local A & P.
I remember these books. I must have been 10 when my father brought the first one home and presented it to me with all the formality of an awards ceremony. Bound in a kid-resistant lacquered cloth, it bore a large portrait of George Washington and a side panel with smaller images of Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Washington crossing the Delaware. I ran my hand over the glossy cover, cracked the binding, and was immediately hooked.
I finished it quickly and counted the days until the turn of the new month, when another volume came home. I'd attack the next one ravenously, all the while dreading the day when the series would catch up with the current president (Lyndon Johnson at the time) and grind to a halt.
Seeing these volumes again, I recalled how our supermarket served as a sort of extension of school, dictating good taste through occasional modest offerings of books and music. Besides the presidential series, I also recall a set of 20 or so books about the history of the world. The world! Right in the juice and cereal aisle. It was in that collection that I first learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the maraudings of the Vikings, Europe's descent into the Dark Ages and its triumphant Renaissance. Because of these books and my impulse to collect them (the hope of the publisher as well), I was the only kid on the block with a vocabulary that included words such as "Northumbrian" and "Visigoth." I also knew about Charlemagne and Pepin the Short and that Istanbul was once Constantinople.
What a wonderful thing for a publisher and a supermarket to do: act as a venue to convey to the public, at a very reasonable price, past and present information about the world in which we live. My parents had very modest means, yet I'm sure the $1.99 they paid for each volume was considered money in my intellectual bank. In fact, there were times when my dad might have considered it too much of a good thing.
I recall how I once huddled under the blanket with a flashlight and made my way, line by line, photo by photo, through the biography of Theodore Roosevelt, agog at the dynamism of this most extroverted of presidents. It was well past my bedtime, and I tried to remain alert in case my father entered the room. He finally took me by surprise, pulling the blanket back and scowling at me. Then he saw the book in my hand, and my surprised expression in the light of the reading lamp.
He smiled. "I want you to stop at the Panama Canal," he said, and left.
There was music as well: the "Funk and Wagnalls Family Library of Great Music," a new album every month. Haydn, Bach, Chopin. The LPs were stacked neatly in a wobbly cardboard display shelf, next to another display hawking the delights of the stuffing one could make right on top of the stove.
My parents delivered these records to me with the same sense of mission that accompanied those books. The musical selections tended to be the lighter, more accessible sides of the great composers (Strauss's "Blue Danube," Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," and Haydn's "Surprise Symphony"), but they served to open a door, to alert me to the fact that these were surfaces overlying bottomless depths of beauty and sophistication.
I don't know when the supermarkets stopped catering to the human taste for knowledge. They still sell nongrocery items, but none of them have a learning aspect. I've seen beach toys, dinnerware, and fireplace accessories. There are books, but they are so-called affirmation titles, on the order of Revise Your Life in an Afternoon. I'd much prefer reading about the life of Andrew Jackson or India's contribution to Western philosophy.
As I haul these old volumes down from the garage loft, I begin to quiver with antici-pation. I enter the house, unpack the books, spread them out on the living room floor, and wonder: Where do I start?
At the beginning, of course. Volume 1. George Washington. But first I take out one of those LPs, still embraced by its cellophane wrapper. Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." I set the needle into its groove. The old disc crackles to life. And then - nirvana.
I'm still hooked after all these years.