By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Shelves full of friends

Twinkly-eyed, 93-year-old Lucile Robins Singer is a bundle of contradictions.

This McMinnvillan claims that so many of her good friends have passed on, she doesn’t “socialize” much anymore.

Yet, this retired teacher, who started teaching at Dayton High at $1,200 per year, has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good friends.

These “friends” are books — books she has read and books she has yet to read that open a new world.

Her first-grade teacher opened this magic world of books for her and launched her passion for reading.

When childhood diseases, one after another, interfered with regular attendance that first school year and she fell behind, the teacher asked her to stay after school one day. Lucile, thinking that it was punishment, cried and cried, until the teacher explained she was only helping Lucile to “catch up.” And catch up she did — as a straight “A” student thereafter — with an insatiable desire to read every book out there. Her dad warned, “Lucile, you’re going to lose your eyesight if you keep reading all the time.”

When her dad’s employer (Red Crown Gasoline, which later became Chevron) moved the family to Tillamook, they lived only a few blocks from the city library. When, in the fourth grade, after she’d read every book in the school library, Lucile discovered that city library, close enough that she could walk there alone. With it came an unbelievable “gift,” a library card that opened a vast sea of books. Santa could not have brought a more wonderful present.

But with that card came responsibility. Her parents explained that she must see that each book she brought home was returned by the due date. If she did not do so, she was responsible for the fine — a penny per book per day. Once, when a borrowed book slipped unnoticed between sofa pillows and was not found until after the due date, Lucile was quite upset. Not because of the penny per day but because she had not been “responsible.” She had deprived others of that book’s enjoyment because she had kept it too long.

When Lucile was 12, their family physician, knowing of Lucile’s passion for reading, one day made a suggestion. “Lucile,” he said, “why don’t you keep track of, and write down the author and title of every book you read, and the date that you read it. One day you’ll be glad that you did.”

What a good idea, thought Lucille. And she already had for doing so exactly the right book: a composition book with lined pages given her by bachelor uncle, Percy Robins, who probably had trouble choosing gifts for little girls.

Now, fast forward 81 years. I sit in Lucile’s apartment and she hands me that book with a black and white mottled cover. I carefully open this treasure to the first page. And there, in beautiful Palmer-method handwriting, is inscribed: “Books I’ve Read since my 12th Birthday, May 25, 1931.” The first book, entered June 2, 1931, was “ReCreations,” by G. L. Lutz — a book she remembers nothing about. Apparently, she liked it; her second entry, “City of Fire,” was by the same author.

Year after year, the entries continue — about 17 to a page. When that first book was filled — and she has never counted the number of entries it contains — she started another which will be filled one of these days. Her favorite genre is mysteries — and Agatha Christie entries are numerous. This Linfield graduate, although interested in about any written word, reads no pornographic or “sexy” selections.

Says Lucile, “If an author has to have a character jump into bed for excitement, I’m not reading it.”

Filling the pages are entries such as “Scruples” by Judith Krantz; “The Immigrants,” and “The Establishment,” by Howard Fast; “The Prize,” by Irving Wallace. Authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson, Tami Hoag, Catherine Coulter, and Jessica Fletcher. But also such entries as “Agricultural Administration in the Belgian Congo,” and “Volunteer in a New York Foundling Home,” and “Mutiny on a Ship with a Food Editor.”

Her favorite book of all is “The Dollmaker,” which she read long ago. It’s about a rural woman who carved dolls, and her greatest ambition was to carve the figure of Christ. Her second favorite is “Gone with the Wind,” and she read that twice, something that this widow — who may take time from reading to dust figurines only when expecting a visit from her two grown sons — seldom takes time to do. She’s not a fast reader, nor is she a reader who “skips.”

The last entry in her second composition book, which is nearly filled, is Debbie Macomber’s, “The Inn at Rose Harbor.” It’s about a young widow who operates a bed and breakfast and meets a person with problems. Somewhere along the way in her listings of books she’s read, Lucile started including a précis about each. It helps remind her of what the book was about.

She’s presently reading “Port Mortuary,” by Patricia Cornwell, a favorite author. It’s in large print, as are all of her readings nowadays. She buys most of the books she reads — and Doubleday obligingly supplies her with mailings as to recent offerings. Once read, she gives her books to acquaintances, or to the library, because it’s doubtful she could squeeze another into her apartment.

In every room except the kitchen are stacks of books — bookcases crammed tight with two rows to the shelf — books not yet read.

This sister of former McMinnnvillan Milt Robins, now deceased but remembered by many locals, starts her day reading The Oregonian. She works its crossword puzzle daily. Beside her now on the sofa is today’s puzzle — no blank spaces remaining. She subscribes to one magazine: “First,” and reads it cover to cover.

Although she mostly uses a walker or a cane when she leaves the apartment, she’s a “freewheeler” in her apartment as she “shops” the stacks of her unread books for a volume that will exactly suit the mood she’s in. And perhaps again, it will be a book that takes her to a different world. Or a book that solves a problem she may have, because the characters in that book do that for her.

“Are you ever bored?” I ask this nonagenarian.

She looks at me in astonishment, “How could I ever be bored?” she asks. “I can’t even imagine being bored with all those books out there to read.” And — to have as friends.

But there is that one sad note in all this. “Whenever I finish a book,” she says, “I’m a little sad because that book will no longer be out there to read.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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