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Mom's bookshelf, in the Kellogg house

May 8, 2011 | 11:15 am

Practicalcats

Growing up with a librarian meant that a lot of books came through our house -- came and went, that is. Most of what we read came from the library, and to the library it had to return.

My sister and I inherited a love of reading from our mom. We read on our own, and Mom was big on reading to us. After a while, she would let us pick, so Mom read everything from children's books like Dr. Seuss and "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm" to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" to us.

But as many books as we read, most of them didn't stay around for long. Sure, there were some books around the house -- one dusty shelf held books from my parents' college years; another had two encyclopedias -- one standard, one the "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening." That last one was my dad's. My mom, who read all the time, rarely kept books for herself.

But one book -- which she read to me plenty of times, so many of times that I can recite its poems by heart, was T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Her version, the one that still sits on her shelf, is an original from 1939 -- the first U.S. edition -- which I think was library bound sometime in the 1960s.

Of course, people know these poems now from the much-loved musical "Cats." But when I was growing up, pre-"Cats," they were just whimsical, easy-to-memorize poems. I lumped them in with A.A. Milne's verse and Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky."

Little did I know that Eliot also wrote "The Waste Land" or that he had a monstrously incisive intellect -- that, overall, he was probably more inclined to contemplate the cruel than the cuddly.

My mom probably knew those things, but she chose instead to give Eliot's classic kitty poems a rare berth in our house. "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" had that privileged place, and it was a book that she returned to, long after I'd jumped ship for "J. Alfred Prufrock." But although I may be fuzzy on what lies etherized upon a table, I will never forget that a cat must have three different names.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot, Mom's 1939 edition. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

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