Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Life Surrounded by Books

My earliest memories used to go back to when I was 5 or 6 years old. They include incidents from kindergarten and from playful moments in my backyard on 6th East in Salt Lake City. I say that these have been my earliest memories, but this has recently changed. A few months ago I discovered that I have a memory that precedes all others by perhaps as much as two years.

This memory came back unsolicited – as memories often do – while I was going through some of mother’s old books. One book in particular, The Story Book of Nick and Dick, was tucked away in a book cabinet in a place that only mother visited. It was behind a glass door and covered-up with various knickknacks. I had not seen the book in over 4 decades.

As I slowly turned the pages, it seemed to me that I had seen the pictures before. Then as I began looking through the chapter about The Thirteenth Pig I remembered having read these stories with my mother on our living room couch. I must have been 3 or 4 years old at the time.

Then I began reminiscing about other memories I have of books. I began to wonder if I didn’t have some sort of predilection for bookish remembering. I have often joked with Kathy about her remarkable memory of meals (and my laughable inability to even remember what I ate yesterday for diner). Now I was beginning to wonder if I might have her ability - but for books and stories.  

Soon I was flooded with thoughts from all decades of my life. These were all pleasant memories and I began to realize that they form a very significant part of who I am. Books have been my companions and friends all my life. At times I begin to second-guess myself and the thousands of books that fill our home. Do I really need so many books? Maybe I should get rid of them, I wonder.

But soon I realize what a mistake this would be. I could not deny my love of (and need of) books without creating a very large hole in the person I am.  Books and I are (and always have been) together for keeps.

My Sister Else taught me to read in what was the basement garage (that had been converted into a living space) of our house. I must have been around five years old. I still remember how proud I was marching upstairs to read a page or two to my parents.

I remember reading through the storybook Madeline and a collection of children’s stories that we kept in the living room on the shelves above the stairs. And then there is a gap in my book memories right at the time of our move from Salt Lake City to Orem. This was a hard time for my mother. She became less settled and her epilepsy was often aggravated by the many changes in our new life.

I fit in fairly well at school but for some reason the schools I attended didn’t do much reading (during the 70’s and 80’s). I remember a reading program in 4th grade that involved reading paragraphs from large cards, but our teachers didn’t read to us very much. I remember only a few books such as Where the Red Fern Grows and Little House on the Prairie. Now, in my 50’s, I find myself reading children’s literature with Kathy as a way to recapture this lost opportunity from so many years ago. Kathy is a good reading partner. She has read so much more of this literature than I have.

I remember distinctly a walk I took, as a teenager, down our long driveway in Orem. I was frustrated that I wasn’t reading more – that I couldn’t keep interested long enough in a real book (I meant by this a long storybook) to read it all the way through. I wanted to love to read. I wanted to read all kinds of very hard books, but my reading record was not very good.

I decided then and there with stern resolve to read some book all the way through. With this goal I took the few dollars of my allowance (that I hadn’t already spent on candy) and managed to find a ride to Deseret Book in the University Mall. I walked up and down the aisles looking at all kinds of titles. They all seemed so difficult. Finally at the back of the store I found a shelf with several books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Many of them were from his series Tarzan of the Apes. Here, I knew, I had found what I needed. I bought the first book and hurried home.

I had trouble getting through Chapter one. It was about the perilous voyage of Tarzan’s parents and of their shipwreck along the coast of Africa. I wondered if the book was too hard for me to read, but I remembered my goal and started Chapter Two. From then on, there was no turning back. The story captured my imagination and before the year was over I had read all 24 books in the series. In later years I would read most of the rest of Burroughs’s books.

My time as a Mormon Missionary is Spain was a very significant and formative period in my life. But it wasn’t a time ideal for reading. We were encouraged to read from the scriptures (which I did each day) and then there were only a few other books that we were permitted to read (such as James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and LeGrand Richard’s A Marvelous Work and a Wonder).

After reading through all of the permitted books twice, I decided to ask my Mission President if I might read something else. He was impressed with my study habits and agreed to let me read Boyd K. Packer’s The House of the Lord and John A. Widtsoe’s Teachings of Brigham Young. I quickly asked my Dad to send these to me and enjoyed them immensely when they came in the mail.

Even with these additional titles, however, I soon found myself reading from the Bible Dictionary as we spent time travelling to and from appointments. When I returned home from Spain, I was sad to see that part of my life come to an end. I had grown a great deal through my experiences teaching the gospel and made many of my mission habits part of my continuing life.

One thing certainly did change, however, upon being released. I began getting up early to study – not just missionary-approved literature, but many other books as well. I remember plodding through my college biology text. I would also spend hours walking through the stacks of books in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU looking for interesting things to read.

It was while wandering through the religious books one day that I came across Hugh Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert. I was completely captivated and unable to put the book down. At this same time Deseret Book (and FARMS) were reprinting Nibley’s collected works. I spent what little book money I could gather on this series.

In the spring of 1984, I met Kathy Vernon in a music class. We were married a year later and moved in to our first home – an old converted garage south of BYU campus. Our first bookcase was an inherited homemade collection of shelves that we used as a room divider. We affixed wallpaper to the back to add color to the small kitchen.

Those shelves held all of our books (with the exception of a few insect texts that I kept at the Bean Museum where I had a desk). There may have been 100 total, maybe a few more - nothing that would hint of my future love of acquiring great books. Little did I then know that I would be building many more bookshelves in coming years as my research adventures led me from one book deal to another.

My goal was not to acquire a lot of books. In fact I remember being turned off by a book collector once while attending a book sale in Salt Lake City with my brother-in-law Will Quist. This man approached us wanting to show us his collection so we obliged him and walked a few blocks to his house. All his rooms were lined with bookshelves – floor to ceiling – with mostly cheap paperback books. Upon asking him what he preferred reading (or if he was studying anything particular) he avoided the question and began commenting on Utah culture.

I think the reason I wasn’t impressed with his collection is that my own book hunts were motivated to find books on subjects I was actively learning about. As the years have come and gone, however, I have discovered that I have accumulated several nice collections anyway. Now, in addition to looking for interesting reads, I also keep my eye open for collectible items, or for authors I respect.

In fact just last week while driving through a dusty town in California’s Salinas Valley, I found a couple of collectible books in the local thrift store. I have learned that when a town is too small (or disinclined to read books) for a used bookstore, the thrift store (or the occasional library book sale) is the only real option for finding books at inexpensive prices.

(I should point out tangentially that my own library is worth a good bit more than what I have actually spent on it because I am constantly on the lookout for book sales. The most memorable sale I visited was a library sale in Loveland, Colorado that I attended with my sons Spencer and Erik and our friend Aaron. A few minutes after the doors had opened and the long line of people waiting outside had been ushered in, a fight broke out between two women over a particular romance novel. For some unexplainable reason, we all thought the scene quite comical – a paperback romance novel worth fighting over! Who would have guessed?)

In the Salinas Valley thrift store I visited, I worked my way through the costume aisle and discovered the single bookshelf in a back corner. (For some reason, thrift store books are always located in the back of the store). I was perhaps twenty feet away when I noticed two volumes from the Franklin Mystery series. I have recently started collecting these (who wouldn’t) whenever I find them like this because they are quite valuable. Franklin Press is no longer in business but their books were leather-bound classics. And they keep (or increase) their value.

I quickly grabbed the two books and discovered, to my great pleasure, that both were books I didn’t have. They were priced at three dollars each, bound in full leather with embossed spines and gilded page margins. I don’t always get so lucky, but such moments of triumph keep me constantly on the lookout. (When I returned home and checked the internet for typical asking prices, I discovered that they are going for $30 to $100 each.)

I can’t help it. I love to learn and I love to read books. The outcome of this duality is a house that could easily double as a library. So be it. Like most habits we love, they come with both good and bad elements. On the good side, my children also love to learn. And this love ranges in psychological demeanor from balanced enjoyment of books to book-mania like their father. But they have also done very well in school (all three boys receiving college scholarships and graduation at the top of their class). Then again, one of my sons recently told Kathy that he had a hard time sleeping unless he was in a room surrounded by books. I laughed. I think Kathy cried.

I used to dream of being a great scholar and helping the world. Now I realize that people usually don’t care much for the things I write about. My few publications (including my one very abstruse book on insects) might fill a couple of resume pages, but they interest very few people. Now I keep reading (and writing) because that is what I do.

Thomas S. Monson once encouraged us to build a home with a library of learning. I can certify with a clear conscience that this is one principle I have no difficulty living. (Although I hope no one ever asks him for a number clarifying how many volumes such a library would involve. What would vacation be like if there wasn’t always the hope of finding last year’s Pulitzer prize-winning titles for only a few quarters?)

So here I sit – in my library surrounded by books. I have lived half a century and there is no chance of finishing all the volumes that surround me. Some people think I must be crazy. I probably am. In extremes, people like me are accused of bibliomania (defined unofficially as the hoarding of books with no use or intrinsic value to the collector). But as long as I am motivated to pull myself out of bed an hour before I need to each morning – just to read a few more chapters – I guess I retain a semblance of clinical normality. But then again, with book-lovers you can never be quite sure!    


The Story Book of Nick and Dick by Arthur I. Baker and Franklin T. Baker was published by The Macmillan Company in 1937.

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