What I learned from the magic world of books

Kids who think adventure means The Rifleman don't know what they're missing. The books of Bob's boyhood carried him off into incredible adventures with swashbuckling pirates, Indian scouts, arrogant swordsmen and a host of romantic figures who lived, fought and died through page after delectable page

January 30 1960

What I learned from the magic world of books

Kids who think adventure means The Rifleman don't know what they're missing. The books of Bob's boyhood carried him off into incredible adventures with swashbuckling pirates, Indian scouts, arrogant swordsmen and a host of romantic figures who lived, fought and died through page after delectable page

January 30 1960

What I learned from the magic world of books


Kids who think adventure means The Rifleman don't know what they're missing. The books of Bob's boyhood carried him off into incredible adventures with swashbuckling pirates, Indian scouts, arrogant swordsmen and a host of romantic figures who lived, fought and died through page after delectable page

I notice that several prominent Canadians have stated recently that TV will never replace books, and I don't believe any of them.

I think books will soon be like bicycles: everybody will know what they are. and maybe even own one. But books will never again hold the fascination they did when there was no TV or radio and there were very few movies.

When I was a kid it was an exciting event to lean over a book on the dining-room table, read: “Early in October, 1X15. an hour before sunset, a tramp entered Digne, a little French town. " or some such ominous w'ords as “Mother Thenardier appeared, a candle in her hand and said. ‘Oh, is it you. you little slut! God knows you have taken your time.’ ” and spend the rest of the evening in a world of strange inns with mysterious travelers sitting by the fireplace, memoirs written in blood in the Bastille, cobblestone streets, and romantic figures who w'ent to jail for twentyfive years, acquired fabulous wealth, cut oil each other's heads and took vital parts in great issues like revolutions.

In those far-off. book-reading days we even considered it a worthwhile evening to open up an old Chambers’ Encyclopaedia on the kitchen table and examine pictures of rare things like “close-hauled sloop." or the “weever fish” or the “lepidopterous." We'd look down at our dog dozing under the kitchen wood range and say, “Hey. lepidopterous!" and she'd give the linoleum floor one thump with her tail and go on sleeping.

We treasured books and saved up for them and discovered them in old trunks, and asked for them for Christmas and traced things out of them and took them to bed with us and wrote away for them. One of the highlights of my life was the time, on the advice of a friend 1 thought was a liar, 1 wrote to the National Museum at Ottawa for a copy of Taverner's Birds of Canada, and got one, tree, packed in a cardboard box. with bits of excelsior still clinging to the color plates. It w'as the last thing I ever got free and I still have it. I think if I had a fire I'd let my TV burn and try to save my free Taverner.

We used to read books lying on the living-room floor, on the front lawn, lying in hammocks and sitting on the porch roof, and the mood of our surroundings seeped into the books and gave them extra flavor — the washing crackling and snapping on the clothesline like the sails of a brig; the winter sun melting the snow on the shingles of the veranda roof outside the upstairs bay window; the whiff of a wet breeze from Lake Ontario; CONTINUED ON PAGE 44

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“We instinctively flourished swords and criedf ‘Have at thee!’”

a distant factory whistle. These all merged into one magic world of sights, sounds, smells and visions of far-off lands. I remember reading Vanity Fair one summer sitting out on the front veranda with my feet on the railing and to this day the smell of hot awnings and coconut mats is enough to take me back into a world of channel crossings, red-coated dandies. Napoleon. Becky Sharp and me, unaffected and deceptively gentle, dropping dead knee-deep in gun smoke at Waterloo.

We didn't have Junior Digests or Classic Comics or Outlines of Famous Stories or school courses that taught us how to read faster in “thought units." Teaching us to read without touching all the words would have been like giving us a new kind of candy that we didn't have to suck. We savored every word of the books we read, including the names of the authors, some of which had wonderful, rhythmic names which we pronounced like the names of secret societies — like Archie P. McKishnie. One of the most heartening signs Eve seen in my family for some time is the way my youngest daughter often mentions, with obvious satisfaction, an author called Theodore Waldeck, who sounds like the kind of writer we used to read when I was a kid.

We read A Tale of Two Cities. The Old Curiosity Shop, Robinson Crusoe. Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island lying on our stomachs, twisting our feet together and gripping handfuls of our hair from behind. We

didn't want to shorten books. We wanted them longer, bigger and thicker. One of the wonderful things about Chums annual was that it weighed about five pounds and you could wander into it as if you were exploring thick spring woods, stopping to pick little mushrooms of information, or settling down beside a warm swamp of prose and never coming out the other side. I've never met a boy who finished reading Chums and I hope I never will.

We read The Boy’s Own Annual, James Fenimore Cooper and Scouting for Boys — a book you could crack open anywhere and come up with some useful information, like how to build an igloo, how to tell from a horse's tracks whether it was trotting or galloping or lame in one foot; how to signal with twigs in the unlikely case that someone kidnaped us, leaving messages, “Short distance away.” 'This is the trail.” "Bad drinking water.” We learned the importance of knowing our personal measurements, like the distance between thumb and forefinger, so that we could measure a moose track without a ruler (1 could still measure a moose track without a ruler). We also learned from the handbook that any boy worth bis salt obeyed orders, saved every penny and put it in the bank, carried baskets, gave horses water and turned wringers for old women. We were advised that "In order to get money you must expect to work” and that "Only chicken-hearted fellows expect to get something for nothing." 1 don't know who the author of the

Boy Scout handbook was, but if he had ever run into a psychiatrist's couch he would have rolled up his sleeves, burst into a lively camping song and split it up for good dry firewood.

We lived with the characters of the books we read — Jean Valjean, the Count of Monte Cristo, D'Artagnan, who, for a month or so. was my favorite person to turn into. I'd sec Athos, Rorthos and Aramis surrounded by the Cardinal's men, who would be making sneering remarks about there just being three men to wipe out. I'd step up and say quietly, "Four," and be thrusting and parrying and laughing. Then Ed hear a voice saying, "If Mister Robert Allen would consider giving us his attention for a moment,” and I'd be back in the classroom amid the stifling smell of chalk, ink and starched middies, trying to remember what Denmark was famous for exporting.

I feel sorry for kids today who go around toting two six-shooters and looking for another gunman and just giving up and shooting me in the back as I pass. It can't compare with dueling. If we found a couple of builder's laths it was instinctive almost to lock eyes, cry “Have at thee. Variet!” and whack away until our swords were only about six inches long. At school wc used to duel with rulers. We'd crack one another's knuckles until they were mauve, smiles riveted on our faces and tears of pain in our eyes, as the girls watched us with cold, unimpassioned, clinical interest. —

as merciless as any women in history.

Apart from the life we really led. there was the one we lived in our books. ! hey always went along together, and sometimes when they joined it didn't work out very well. I remember that when I was reading a book called I he Owner of the Lazy D. I never spoke without saying something droll and witty, like the hero, and when my motoer would say, "Just who do you think you're talking to. Mr. Big Mouth." I'd look her up and down, knock the desert dust from my Stetson and drawl something like "I but 1 reckon she's my mother, leastwise, 1 thought she was the last time 1 looked.

I would be just about to roll some Bull Durham when I'd get a crack on the back of the head that would make my hair stand up as if I'd just sighted a Pawnee. My mother was the lastest woman on the draw in our block.

We kept secret caches

We were prejudiced against books we read in school, partly because of their association with ink. inactivity and teachers. and partly because it was impossible to get interested in any book the girls carried home to study. And there was the added agony of having to read aloud in class. The only bright spot about school reading was provided by a deeply dimpled boy named Marcus with a quick breathy voice like escaping compressed air. who used to give all the different characters different voices. The rest of us used to put our chins down onto our chests and hurry through the whole thing, muttering. looking sideways, grinning and dodging spit balls, and when Marcus got up we'd sit there in an agony of vicarious self - consciousness, barely believing our cars, particularly as the guy wasn t even laughing, while the girls beamed, charmed by his talent. Marcus would explain to the bewildered teacher that he thought it made it more interesting to act out the parts like that, and she couldn't do anything about it. Stopping him would have been like stopping somebody from praying.

Although our experience with books at school was enough to put us off literature for life, it was offset by what we did with books at home. We were never taught to respect books or handle them gently or keep them clean. We kept books in our attic, in old trunks, behind piles of lumber, in clothes closets and abandoned washstands. and it made it all the more fun when you found one. No matter where you were supposed to be working in our house you could find a book, lie on the floor and start reading it. We kids sat on books, stood on books, threw books at one another, and kept literature on the same level of fun as getting a ride in a bread wagon. The big thing was that we were conscious of books. They were

all hard-covered books, which made them more like a magic box with a lid, w'hich creaked when it was new', and some of the old books we found around the house seemed to have a physical being to match their content, like Eos Miserables, which was a dingy yellow - paged volume that looked as if it had been carried around with The Bishop’s Candlesticks. We used to trace drawings out of them. You never felt as if you completely owned a drawing until you’d traced it and copied it onto a pad. which somehow made it yours for life. And in a way it did. I came across the Burgess Animal Book for Children recently and each picture in it was as familiar to me as the face of one of my family because I'd traced every one of them. There was nothing inferior about the talent of tracing. A good copier was a talented man. and you’d take your copy and show it to your mother, w'ho would shake her head in admiration while you stood there with pursed lips, completely solemn, reticent and worthy.

Not that there weren't some boys with bland, smiling faces who had no respect either for books or what was inside them, who handled them like hatchets or rocks, giggling uncomfortably. I remember one grinning, freckled, sandy - colored boy with flaring ears in our class who spent all one day cutting the pages loose in his copy of Ivanhoe with a new penknife, until every page was lying loose. He took great pride in the fact that although it looked like a book, it really wasn't a book. He paid for it all next day. when the teacher caught him by surprise and snapped. "Open your books to page sixtyfour," just as a gust of wind blew in the window from Bowden Avenue and filled the back half of the classroom with pages from Ivanhoe.

But to most of us a book brought messages of a great world of adventure w here people weren't content just to go on buying newspapers and waiting for streetcars. Books were live and important, and we suspected that there were even better ones where they came from, and sometimes we stole into the adult section of the public library, where it was very stuffy and quiet and everyone looked a bit mad and unhappy and old men with sagging red eyes and their scarves and gloves piled on the table in front of them looked at us balefully when we sniffed. But you sensed that there was a whole new world of experience there, a bigger, more substantial world.

In the meantime, books were in the mainstream of our lives, and played an important part in forming our dreams and behavior. We read for escape and for pleasure and it colored our days and our future. TV will never produce anything that will equal waking up on a dewy summer Saturday morning with the sun and the scent of lilacs coming through the bedroom window, reaching for a book, disappearing with it half under the bedsheets and reading of swimming out to a wrecked ship to salvage some rope, biscuits and a keg of nails, or provisioning a barque on a scuddy wet windy wharf, or of dark seas crashing against cliffs or a sunny forest in England, and entering a great world of rapture and communion with reality.

There was nothing between us and the books we read. The story came to us clear through polished senses. Now I can pick up a book and start living in another world. Debts float past me like seraphim, worries and irrelevant thoughts like dark angels. But in those days we forgot the book in another way: it ceased to exist because it became a make-believe world — the world of the books we read when we were kids, if