Just a Book, Please
The holiday season sparks a deep need to share and shower loved ones with gifts and overtures of affection. On the rare occasion that my spouse actually does ask me what I desire for the holidays, I respond the same way: “Get me a book “.
If I were to spend my “perfect day” (a day defined as 24 hours spent doing exactly what I want to do), there would be considerable time allotted for browsing Elm Street Books or wandering the aisles of our local library. The unique identity and reassuring rhythm of any small town is always defined by its eclectic mix of local businesses. As we grow older, these physical landmarks become important ballast in a world that is increasingly raked by the winds of change. We need books. These vehicles fashioned out of pulp and binding are important equilibrium in our intellectual and emotional lives. In an era of instant gratification and enabled learning, we seem to be losing our ability to reflect and to cultivate our senses of imagination and wonder. We live in a world whose mysteries and magic seem to be disappearing faster than glaciers and ice shelves from global warming.
Growing up, we spent long evenings listening to my father reading Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, our imaginations fueled by the brilliant illustrations of Norman Rockwell and NC Wyeth. A child’s mind like any muscle needs constant exercise. Our Sunday evenings were reserved for Harper Lee, Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The shadows of my bedroom became a safe haven for fierce Indians, blood thirsty pirates and the forces of the unknown. I committed to memory a Tale of Two Cities where Tellson’s Bank would assign young apprentice bankers to work “deep in the bowels of the bank until they had sufficiently aged like blue cheese, with white hair and pale, bluish skin, wherein they might be more credibly put in front of customers”. I recall the selfless sacrifice of Sydney Carton and the venomous quilting of the vindictive Madame Desfarges. As I got older, hormones and physical pursuits overshadowed my adolescent passion for books and my bookshelves gathered only dust.
In the early 1980s, my passion for reading was reignited upon a chance visit to the civil war battle field, Chickamauga outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I was perusing the bookstore, I found a Pulitzer Prize winning book called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I stayed up the entire night in my hotel sitting at the elbow of an agonized and loyal confederate general Longstreet as he questioned Robert E Lee’s tactics. I rode with Buford, his cavalry and their Spencer’s repeating rifles as they held Cemetery Ridge against a much larger Confederate force. I witnessed an obscure English professor from Bowdoin College charge his ammunition depleted men down Little Round Top against a determined rebel advance to effectively win the battle of Gettysburg for the Union.
How could this gem of a book have eluded me? I recommitted myself to regain my days spent losing track of time as I disappeared into a great book. Work, children and shorter blocks of free time all conspired against me. However, my local bookstore inspired me and became escape to uncharted continents filled with people, adventure and intrigue. I copied pages from the NY Public Library’s Book of Lists that detailed every novel and book that had ever won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction or non fiction. I gave this guide to my spouse at the holidays and said, “this is all I want – – books”. As the wrapping was torn, I was reintroduced to some familiar friends from my college curricula – Harper Lee, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, Ernest Hemmingway, Herman Wouk, William Styron and John Updike. I also landed on new islands occupied by writers as diverse as Manhattan. I met the tragically bipolar author, John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a single novel, committed suicide and only after his mother had uncovered his cryptic, scribbled manuscript and offered it to a local university literature professor did the world discover the hilariously autobiographical, A Confederacy of Dunces.
I stumbled across Joseph Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor which ranks among the great WWII novels and is relatively unknown. MacKinlay Cantor took me into the abject squalor of Andersonville prison and into the psyche of a conflicted Southerner, Ira Claffey. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie offered me an unsanitized journey through the experience of Vietnam and helped me to contour a more balanced view of the unintended consequences of dogmatic foreign policy. In The Haunted Land, Tina Rosenberg reverently walked among the ghosts and shattered realities of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Rosenberg wrestles with how an entire region of Europe, once subjugated under the boot of the Soviet Union, recovers from its trauma and the effective destruction of its identity.
The books idle patiently each night by my bed stand, which has become a massive slip with scores of boats waiting for a captain. My sense of wonder and curiosity has slowly been restored. For this holiday fanatic, there’s nothing better than getting a book for Hanukkah or Christmas, especially one that provokes new ideas or provides deeper context on complex issues. Whether the present takes you down the an unmapped tributary of the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt in River of Doubt or lands you on a Pacific island fighting a brutal unseen enemy in Norman Mailer’s Naked And the Dead, it will take you away. Walking into the dust and detritus of other’s ideas and narratives, you are once again a young explorer – – brilliant, sacred, profane and idealistic in search of discarded ideas of previous generations that might help you make a little more sense out of life’s mysteries. Emily Dickenson once wrote “there is no frigate like a book to take us away “. A bookstore is so much more than a place to park the kids while you nurse your latte. It’s a massive port of ideas, views and knowledge and it is where our past, present and futures converge.
For Christmas this year, don’t buy me a tie, socks or a new shirt. Just give me books! Lots of books!