The most important book I own isn't on a shelf with my other reading favorites. It's safely tucked in the top drawer of my dresser, and every time I open the drawer a tiny white puppy stares happily at me from the bright red cover.
The title is "A New Playmate." I rate it "most important" because it's the first book I brought home, and it sparked an appreciation for having my own books and building a personal library that has lasted more than 50 years.
The slim little volume was produced by Whitman Publishing as part of a series called Tiny Tales. It came into my possession sometime between the autumn of 1957 and spring of '58. I was in nursery school, and one day the teacher said she had a surprise for us and handed out the books. If you're thinking, "Wait, kids that age wouldn't know how to read yet," you'd be correct. The teacher read the story to us out loud while we followed along and looked at the pictures.
I loved the illustrations instantly. In 13 briskly paced pages, we learned about two children, Donny and Mary, who greet their father as he arrives home from work and are delighted to learn he's brought home a puppy in his jacket pocket. The puppy blinks a lot and the kids name him Blinky.
My copy has numerous crimps and creases on the front and back covers, and every bit of that wear and tear was inflicted by me. (Thumbing through paper pages is one big reason I will always prefer books to e-readers.)
The dimensions of "A New Playmate" are just right for kids in the nursery school demographic: 4 inches tall by 3-1/4 inches wide. Call me fussy, quirky, or just odd, but my opinions about any book I encounter are still influenced by its size and weight, and how "hand friendly" it feels.
I do recall being slightly disappointed that every kid in the class got the same item. Whenever I see a stack of books, I expect to find variety. It's a trait I can truthfully say began on the day Blinky made his appearance.
My reading habits ranged across a variety of genres during my school years, and other books saved from that period show the territory I explored. Several paperback collections of articles from Fate Magazine ("True Stories of the Strange and the Unknown") show evidence of water damage. That's because I had a youthful habit of reading while soaking in a hot bath, and occasionally I lost my grip. Another advantage real books have over the electronic versions: They can be dried out and read again.
Decade after decade, books mark the path of the reader's interests and attitudes as they develop, change direction, or settle into a pattern. One of my patterns is to keep two or three "reads" in progress simulta-neously. I like to bounce around among multiple titles, depending on my mood. It's another aspect of my continuing quest for variety.
I also have books about World War II, Korea, and Vietnam that are filled with notes I've scribbled in the margins. A piece of advice I give all aspiring op-ed writers is that anytime you make an assertion about a controversial subject, be prepared to quickly cite a reliable source who can back you up if somebody calls you out. My annotated books are ready and waiting for such challenges. And, not to be a nattering nabob of negativism about this, but you can't scribble notes in the margins of an e-reader.
I've held onto books that are connected to special moments in my life and books that my parents read when they were young, all of them infused with memories that resonate every time I flip through the pages.
Care must be taken, however, not to get trapped in the past. While I enjoy having one wall of my basement lined with bookshelves, keeping every volume I ever bought wouldn't be useful or practical. Once read, I believe most books should move on to another reader. I hope that each one I put back into circulation will become a memo-rable chapter in someone else's life.
I've seen Tiny Tales books offered for sale online, including copies of "A New Playmate," but that's one option I'd never pursue. An ongoing literary adventure started the day I brought that little book-puppy home. How could I possibly consider sending him off to live with some other family now? No way. Blinky stays with me.