Monday, February 11, 2008

Books, and the things you remember

This is how I grew up: trips to the bookstore, "because it was on the way." Summer reading clubs, where the goal was to read as many books as you could. "Story Time" at the local library. A program called "Book-it" that involved, in some way that now escapes me, gold stars on large buttons (it was the 80s, after all) and Pizza Hut. A middle school competition called "Battle of the Books," sort of a literary quiz bowl. Being read to by my parents - and, in my turn, reading to them, to show them that they had taught me well. Later, reading to my little sister and my little brother, because I loved them, and in my family, to read - to share a book - is to love.

As far back as I can remember, there have been books. Even when money was tight, as it must have been with three young children, there were always books. There have always been books. On shelves. In stacks. In my apartment today, there are at least as many books in boxes as there are on shelves. More are still at my parents' house. There is no space here.

Oh, but there is room. There is always room for a book.

A particular book can stir something in a child. There are certain books of my youth that come to mind from time to time. One of them came to mind today, a book called Navy & Empire: A Short History of Four Centuries of British Sea Power and Its Influence Upon Our World, by James L. Stokesbury. It's long out of print now, but it is a paperback of just over 400 pages, with a blue cover and a photo of HMS Invincible returning from the Falklands War - the copyright date is 1983 - in a fairly large format, about seven inches by ten. Dr. Stokesbury was a history professor who carved out something of a niche in writing short histories of this and that, all of which seem to have been fairly well received. Thumbing through it now for the first time in some years, the book seems to hold up well to my memories of it - it is a survey, but it is not superficial. Dr. Stokesbury knew what he was doing when it came to this "short history" business.

I have had this book for a very long time. My memory is somewhat vague, but I think my parents bought it for me an old Rose's store. Rose's started as North Carolina's contribution to the five-and-dime phenomenon; by the 1980s it was a struggling discount chain that was losing to Wal-Mart and other competitors. It survives today as part of a dollar store conglomerate. Inflation, I guess.

These stores, then as now, stock a handful of books - mostly paperback novels, but occasionally you find something out of the ordinary. On one of these trips, I found this book. My memory - still vague - tells me that I saw this book, looked at it, and asked for a couple of times before my parents agreed to buy it for me. I think it might have been moved to a discount bin by then. My parents were not normally reluctant to buy me books, but I guess they might have thought at first that it was a bit much for me - after all, I don't think I could have been much more than eight years old at the time.

I'm grateful that they bought it anyway. Certainly at that age I didn't have enough understanding to really put the book in context - but Dr. Stokesbury's Canadian English has a certain elegance to it that elevates the subject from the merely interesting to the absorbing. At a time when I was forming the interests and inclinations that I will carry for the rest of my life, this book helped inspire a fascination with all things maritime. And as I leaf through it now, I see that there are even more strings of my life rooted here - this book has people, politics, maps, exotic places and names and words, and the power of a certain memorable turn of phrase.

A certain memorable turn of phrase. That was what led me to take this book off the shelf today. I was reading a post over at Neptunus Lex on the forms taken by sea power in the modern age, and as I was thinking about it, a half-remembered phrase came to mind that I thought applicable. (You can read the resulting comment, with the whole phrase, here.) I knew where it had come from, so it was off to find the book. Had I left it at home, or was it here? If it was here, was it in a box somewhere, unpacked for lack of space, or had I put it on the shelf?

I started toward the boxes, but then thought: no. Easier to look first on the shelf. And there it was, in pride of place on the top shelf, nestled with others of its size and kind. Just as I had left it, and I remember now why I put it there: it is a book, perhaps of no great importance in the grand scheme of things, destined to be unremembered when the rolls of great books are read, but all the same a book of great importance in the life of a boy who became a man, destined to be remembered whenever he thinks back upon the great books of his life.

It will go back on the shelf later this evening. Waiting to be reread. Waiting to be rediscovered. Waiting, perhaps, to touch another life as it has touched mine.


Blogger MMC said...

Nice post. It's amazing the power that books can have in our lives. It makes me feel sorry for those who can't or won't read. They know not what they miss.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Anon_e_mouse said...

Yes, there is always room for a book. The only problem is that, even with two houses, we've long since run out of shelf space in both of them and there's almost no space left in the back room of the North Carolina house for the boxes of overflow volumes that seem to multiply every time we look away.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

Book-It! You got a star for every book you read I think and when you filled up your button (I think it took five), you could get a personal pizza. The fact that we hardly ever redeemed them didn't stop us.
And I'm totally turning the first room in my house into a library! That I will no doubt soon outgrow.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Anon_e_mouse said...

Even when money was tight, as it must have been with three young children, there were always books.

Books are not a luxury, they are a necessity, just like food. Indeed, in a way, books are food... for the brain.

7:21 PM  

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