Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading Under Difficult Circumstances

My father would go out into the world, visit friends, talk, and find things. That was how the horses came into our lives after we moved back into the hills and soon after  he found an electric generator in a household that lived near newly planted power poles. It was a gigantic monster that had to be started with a mammoth hand crank and looked as though it was a remnant of the Industrial Revolution.

Weird ganglia of electric wire and sockets filled our house. Eventually one evening my father cranked up the generator and we had lights and music on a functioning phonograph. The monster had brought us back to a semblance of 20th century comfort but it was a moody, capricious apperatus that could die without warning, in the middle of a sonata or the baking of waffles. Submerged in sudden darkness, my parents would scramble for flashlights and light the Blazo lanterns.

When the generator chugged and produced light, we all spread out over a large house but when the lanterns were lit, we huddled together in one spot, always reading. Beneath their glass coverings, the cloth mantels threw out a clear white light but it didn’t travel well so we crammed together, as close to the lanterns as we could get.

There was never enough to read. We fought over who would be the first to read Life or the Saturday Evening Post when our parents were preoccupied with something else. The Post had cartoons and Life was all photos, a television set bound in paper. Some of the best photojournalists in the world had their work on the pages of Life and it was always a wonderful surprise to see what they had to show every week.

By the time I was ten, I knew about Balenciaga, Princess Luciana Pignatelli, winter sports at St Moritz and bikinis on the Riviera. I saw the dark and horrible consequences of mercury poisoning and the incomprehensible cruelty of Little Rock. Renata Tebaldi, Sophia Loren, Richard Nixon, Robert Frost, the Shah of Iran, the beautiful flower-faced Queen of Thailand—I studied these faces and imagined their lives beyond what was shown in a few photographs and and a smattering of snappy prose.

Earlier, just when I turned six, already a gluttonous reader, a box arrived and I was allowed to open it. Inside were the six most popular novels of Louisa May Alcott, all for me. I read them and reread them over the next nine years, until their cheap bindings had disintegrated and the pages were loose-leaf. Long after their glossy, colored dust jackets were tattered and thrown away, these books were my treasures, my personal library.

Alaska had one bookstore then, the Book Cache in Anchorage, and my parents bought paperbacks there every time they were in town. Their purchases were all classics and philosophy; my father had left school when he was fourteen and the Depression hit, an event that made him a life-long autodidact. He may be the only person I ever met who read all of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that a salesman persuaded my mother to buy in installment payments one summer.

Snack reading came in boxes of paperbacks that were passed from household to household in Anchor Point and made their way to us even after we left town. Most of those books were pulp fiction with garish covers and yellowing pages, the cheap glue that bound them together already cracked and useless. Picking through them when they arrived, choosing the ones to read, was a big event in our house, almost as much fun as the monthly library boxes.

Alaska sent books into the wilds in cartons by mail. Each member of a family could tick off their preferences when they signed up for this service and librarians in the state capital of Juneau would choose books that would correspond as closely as possible to each individual reader. What was in the carton was always a surprise and we looked forward to this as though Christmas came every month.

Then the Anchor Point Community Club decided the town needed a library of its very own. They found space in an abandoned one-room school and men filled it with bookshelves made of rough lumber. Two women volunteered to keep the library open one day a week and they requested assistance from Juneau. They were told if they could come up with a core collection of one hundred cloth-bound  books as the genesis of the library and a group of people who would borrow from them regularly, they would become an official institution with books provided by the state of Alaska.

One hundred books in a community of ninety-eight people was a mammoth task. Books were either hard-bound treasures or ephemeral paperbacks. Nobody had the money to buy a new book to donate to something that might not ever come to fruition. And it probably wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for a man who had been a garbage man in Anchorage, who had a reverence for books. Any time he found a hard-cover book, he brought it home. By the time he retired, his collection was both motley and expansive. That became the nucleus of our library.

Once it opened, every week I would ride my horse on a twenty-mile round trip with two burlap bags filled with the maximum number that my family could borrow—sixteen books. When a storm blew in, I would spend the night at the house of a family friend. Otherwise I could make it to town and back in one day. Once winter struck, my sisters and I would go with my father when he went to pick up the mail.

It was always special to enter that room full of books, even though many of them were so old and battered that they were almost unreadable. When the books began to come from Juneau, the librarian displayed them with pride. Their shiny covers protected with plastic gleamed among the shelves of unjacketed and rejected books. The highest accolade the librarian gave as she showed us new additions to the collection was, “Look. It’s a brand new book.”


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