It's Not Just a Book: Marilyn Brass

It's Not Just a BookBooks are a chance to gather with friends, a refuge from the world, an answer to a problem that felt impossible, a connection to distant people, a lifetime of inspiration. They get to you after hundreds, even thousands of hours, of work by authors, editors, copy editors, and booksellers and they stay with you, in one form or another, for your whole life. We asked local authors, booksellers, and other book industry people to reflect on their experiences writing and publishing books, the importance of books in their lives, the role of independent bookstores in our society, and why books are so much more than just words on paper.

Below is the first installment of our It’s Not Just a Book blog series, written by Marilyn Brass.

I’M A WRITER!: Why I Love Books

I was the fat kid with glasses whose knee socks were always falling down, and I was born into a family of story tellers. Every one of my relatives had a story, and told it over and over again.  There were embellishments and additions and subtractions as they edited their lives and the lives of everyone who came before them. No one was exempt from discussion. We were talkers, thinkers, doers, and, most importantly, we were readers. That was my inheritance.

When I was seven, I showed my aunt Sadie, who had been a concert violinist as a child and was a lawyer who graduated with a 97+ average from Portia Law School, a notebook with lined pages – blank pages. I asked her what to do with the notebook, and she wrote 12 different words on 12 of those pages. She suggested that I write 12 sentences for each of those words. What a challenge. I did it, and I loved doing it. I had discovered what it was like to write. I could be as creative as I wanted to be with those 12 words.

We were a family that had books, newspapers, and magazines all over our house. We had bookcases filled with my father’s pharmacy journals, an atlas which became so woefully out-of-date that it could be considered collectible. There were books given as gifts, books loaned, a set of Nancy Drew, and an encyclopedia that went from N to Z. As soon as I could read the funnies in the Boston Herald Traveler by myself, I graduated to a paperback I’d found of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was seven, and the book was rather gritty, and so I just skipped over the parts I didn’t understand, but I knew that the author was painting a picture with words.

As soon as I discovered the branch of the Winthrop Public Library located in the basement of the Shirley Street Grammar School, I knew that libraries were temples of learning, and that Librarians (spelled with a capital L) were like goddesses dispensing ambrosia and nectar disguised as books. I came to love books. I loved the feel and smell of them. Sometimes the pages were a bit rough to the hand, often repaired with that translucent tape that Librarians always used.

Sometimes, the books were a bit stained and musty-smelling. I valued those stains because I knew that someone besides myself had discovered the treasures that lay within. I felt a kinship with those who had read those books before I did. I wasn’t lonely when I touched a book that someone else had touched.

I found excitement in books. I felt like an explorer every time I picked out a book, never knowing what I would learn from its pages and illustrations. Handling and reading books cancelled out that moment when a girl held a mirror up to my face on the school bus and said, “See how ugly you are?”

I found that I was an observer. I loved listening to people talk and noticed what they wore and the perfume they used. I loved hearing people describe what they ate and how it tasted and looked. I loved the sight and feel of a beautiful porcelain dish, or the texture of a linen napkin, and I remembered what I heard and saw and felt.

In 1955, when I was 14, I entered an essay contest sponsored by the Winthrop Brotherhood Council to write about a good neighbor. I came home from school to find out that the two essays that I had submitted were both chosen for awards, but I could receive only one -- first prize.

Then my mother sent me to the local bakery to pick up half a loaf of rye bread. I stopped at the grocery store for a bottle of milk, and as I walked down the street towards home, I felt myself straightening up, walking tall.  “I’m a writer!” I thought, “I’m a writer, and people know it!

Marilynn Brass is a Journalist, Cookbook Author, and the Co-Executive Producer of the PBS Series, THE FOOD FLIRTS. Her most recent cookbook, written with her sister Sheila, is Baking with the Brass Sisters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.