As a child, when books were few and far between, when I had not yet learned about libraries, I craved the written word. In our home we had a small bookcase containing a set of Encyclopedia Britannica and a number of my mother’s art books. I do not know why reading was not emphasized in our household. In fact, I often wonder why reading was not emphasized in our small town as a whole. Perhaps the absence of a city library was the cause: absence negating knowledge of what might have been. Would I crave ice cream, for instance, if I did not know ice cream?
We left this small town when I was eleven years old and moved to a farm on the Illinois-Wisconsin border. My siblings and I attended a rural grade school. The city library, of which I knew nothing, got farther away. By this time, though, my Minnesota-grandfather had planted in me the seed of reading, loading my arms before a return trip to Illinois with a box of adventure books. By the time my family moved to the farm, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Edith Bird Darling’s Navarre of the North were playing in my mind. Already I was hooked on the endless adventures life might serve up – an addiction fed by whatever books I could get my hands on. In turns, I was a cowboy in the Wild West; a high school baseball player with major league potential; a registered nurse; Alice in a place called Wonderland, Dorothy in the land of Oz; I was a voyageur in the Canadian north, a musher in the far-off Yukon. I was an adventurer plying the waters of the muddy Missouri with Lewis and Clark. When later I went off to college, the breadth of my reading material increased, as did my aspirations – someday I would be Hemingway writing in Paris; I would be Faulkner describing a dying woman’s final thoughts; I would be Steinbeck telling the story of the Great Depression; I would be Upton Sinclair detailing the exploitation of immigrant labor in the Chicago slaughterhouses.
Now as an adult, I read and read and read. I tell my children that I cannot die; there are simply too many books yet to read. When I do die, for die I must, I’ve given instructions that I be buried with my books…and an ample supply of Post-it’s, pens, and yellow highlighters. How many books? Can there be too many? I’ve told my children that although the emphasis should be placed on books I haven’t read, they must not forget to include Borges, W. G. Sebald, Italo Calvino, Ray Bradbury, N. Scott Momaday, William Least Heat-Moon, Loren Eiseley, and William Vollman. And what about poetry? I’ll need Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Walt Whitman, and, of course, Theodore Roethke. I’ll also need Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. And Herodotus! Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God is a must, and the Arabian Nights and Gunter Grass. I’m not a big science fiction fan, but I can easily see myself craving Richard Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark. After all, eternity is a long time. The casket will be heavy. Perhaps I should stipulate a final ceremony involving a pyre. How fitting that Homer and I should mingle in the rising smoke and disperse together on the wind. How fitting indeed.
At noon today the rain lightened. To celebrate I donned my raincoat and ventured into the south woodlot to discover what changes had occurred. Raindrops hung on honeysuckles in silvery counterpoint to pink blossoms preparing to open. Nearly translucent in the understory, a single columbine had blossomed. A patch of coralroots stood sentinel against a broken tree trunk. Now was the time for baneberry blossoms and False Solomon’s Seal! Along the field’s edge, chives formed minaret seed cases. Crabapple and hawthorn trees were everywhere in flower. Chokecherry blossoms perfumed the air. Fern fronds unfurled. Wild sarsaparillas sent up their flower stalks.
It was the wagon wheel in the north woodlot that sent me down life’s memory lane of books and libraries. Now all but impenetrable, I remembered snowshoeing between the trees unhindered in January. The memory of January took me back to Jack London, which tripped my thoughts, like falling dominos, to memories of adventures long-associated with reading. I stopped to photograph the wagon wheel, tracking in my mind’s eye stories of westward expansion, stories of hay wagons and stage coaches, stories of horses and buggies. I saw myself again sitting cross-legged before my family’s bookcase, leafing through the Encyclopedia Britannica. How rich the world is, I thought, as I paused to photograph the wheel. How rich is this library of the world.