Let’s Reminisce: The role of a bachelor uncle
When I look back on my childhood, one of the things I am most grateful for is the bachelor uncle who lived with us and added so much to the nurture and education of myself and my brother and sisters. Uncle Doug was always there to encourage and stimulate us to be curious about ideas and the world around us. He took me to the State Fair of Texas when I was only five or six years old, when getting there involved riding a passenger train from Groesbeck to Dallas and back, which was an adventure in itself. He took my brother and me to see our first movies, and he bought us a microscope to look at tiny creatures in pond water and a telescope to give us a closer view of stars in the night sky.
What I’m remembering right now is the time in the early ‘50s when a full-page ad ran in the Dallas Morning News offering bargain prices for “Little Blue Books,” offering hundreds of titles for a dime each. Uncle Doug helped me go through the list of books and choose several dozen to order and read. It was another decade at least before I came to understand the story behind the man named E. Haldeman-Julius and his big idea of making classic books by major authors available at extremely low prices. I’m willing to bet that a few readers of this column may recall reading some Little Blue Books in the 1940s.
To refresh my memory I looked up “E. Haldeman-Julius” in Wikipedia. There I learned that the Little Blue Books were published and sold in the hundreds of millions from the 1920s through the ‘70s. The novelist Louis L’Amour discovered them when he was given one book by a hobo with whom he was stealing a ride on a freight train out of El Paso. There were about three thousand different titles, and L’Amour began carrying a dozen or more in his pockets and reading them whenever he could: “I read several hundred of them. Included were poetry and plays of Shakespeare, collections of humor and short stories by classic writers like Mark Twain and Jack London, as well as books on the history of music, philosophy and painting, and the principles of electricity.”
Unfortunately, Julius became an enemy of J. Edgar Hoover in 1948 when he published a book critical of the FBI, and after extensive investigations he was convicted in 1951 of income tax evasion. He died soon after and perhaps that was what caused the sell-off of Little Blue Books that was advertised in the Dallas Morning News, attracting the attention of my uncle and resulting in his purchase of dozens of the little books that intrigued me.
In thirty years of teaching older adults to reminisce and write their life stories, I have learned that little details and seemingly minor influences in childhood often become determining factors in shaping one’s career choices. In my case that’s how it was with Little Blue Books and a bachelor uncle.
My love of reading and talking about ideas was stimulated by my bachelor uncle, and my very satisfying career as a college professor was a natural outgrowth of the seeds he planted and nurtured, just as Louis L’Amour’s writing career was helped along by the Little Blue Books of E. Haldeman-Julius.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: firstname.lastname@example.org.