You know, sometimes I think my troubles started when I learned how to read. A good book stops me in my tracks—political ones, such as The Way of the Knife—about the CIA’s secret army; histories, like Vietnam and America; novels, mysteries—I just finished a chronicle of the Gastonia, North Carolina, 1929 textile strike—and a novel that surrounded that experience with the beauty and anguish of the mountains: Call Home the Heart, by Olive Tilford Dargon. Almost eight months of my life just disappeared as I went adventuring with Patrick O’Brien’s swashbucklers Aubrey and Maturin on the poop decks of twenty Napoleonic War sea novels.
Like Scout Finch I think I was reading since I was born. Through elementary and high school, and finally college, it was a struggle to pay attention to the coursework. All I wanted to do, from the second grade, when that confounded librarian at St. Thomas Moore introduced me to the Hardy Boys mysteries, was run around the neighborhood on bikes and go-karts, playing war with Tuttie Oliver and Wade-O Medlock, and after dark, read, sometimes under the blanket with a flashlight. (Did’j ever do that?) I was the No-Trouble Kid on the long family motor trips; I measured the distance from Atlanta to my grandmother’s house in Syracuse as one to one-and-a-half mystery books or one Tom Sawyer-type. We had this stack of young adult biographies of Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket, George Washington, Molly Pitcher, Abigail Adams, Ben Franklin. Further, Gramma had, besides a real barn and a portion of the actual eighteenth century Erie Canal in her back yard, an attic full of her six children’s juvenile libraries—all the classic children’s books, Peter Pan, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, Dickens, plus all the World War I boys’ adventures, like the Air Service Boys, and The Boy Allies.
In college I never could focus on my assignments. I should have majored in English lit. I loved the inter-war novelists. Political science just didn’t have the great reads it does now—it was mired in anti-Communist liberalism, so I became a theology minor almost by default. Among the theology students and younger professors there were the beautiful meditations of the Christian socialists—Dorothy Day and the Berrigans with their calls to action; Norman Thomas’s social gospel, and Paul Tillich’s existentialism. Bertrand Russell’s expositions of Vietnam war crimes, Ammon Hennacy’s pacifist meditations and Martin Luther King’s writings were major underpinnings of my sixties anti-war patriotism. I was enticed to the glories of the inner self by Alan Watts, R.D. Laing, and Timothy Leary. At the same time I could escape the misbegotten world into Frank Herbert’s, Larry Niven’s, Harlan Ellison’s, and Isaac Azimov’s utopic and dystopic universes.
At my ancient age, and after two cataract operations, reading hasn’t gotten any less absorbing. I chose the house I’m living in because it had five great places to read. It was a cold February day in 2013 when the realtor (Bless his name!) called, “I’ve got the house for you!” I tore from room to room calculating in my mind—let’s see . . . little office off the living room, I’ll put a couch by the wood stove for the winter with its western exposure with five windows for light; here’s a sunny window in the bedroom any time in the afternoon, a second bedroom doubling as a library right off a sun porch that’ll be a conservatory and spring/summer guestroom with a couch/hideaway bed. And “glory be!” an outside back porch for warm and sunny days. I was at the bank a fifteen minutes later with earnest money. And though the heater went $400-rattle-and-crash this week I’ve had no regrets. What’s on deck for Spring? A second grandchild, St. Patrick’s Day, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and The Shepherd’s Life, from England’s Lake District native and poetic activist-shepherd James Rebanks. Honk if you see the light burning late at night.