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TALKING TO MYSELF: 30 OCTOBER 2012 "The library and I grew together. It moved locations, again and again, becoming ever larger and more sophisticated. I, too, moved on to bigger things. . . . "
The Owen County Public Library Board dedicated its splendid new library building on Saturday. Kudos are in order for the library board and the citizens of Owen County. Well done, my friends. Traveling out of state, I was not able to be there for the celebration, but few things in life make me happier than libraries, especially fine ones in my home town. Ernie ran across this YouTube video of the ceremony, and I hope I am not breaking any law by linking to it.
Some years ago, I wrote an essay about my first visit to the Owen County Library, or for that matter to any library, and a list of my favorite books. Each of us will have a different list of books that made a diffference in who we became, and mine might be different were I writing it today. My memory of my first visit to the library, however, remains unchanged.
Georgia's Favorite Books
A pretty good friend of mine once announced to our book discussion group that she’d never liked a single book I recommended. Such a put-down might silence others. Instead, I’ve put together an unabashed list I’m calling “Georgia’s Favorites.” This notion came to me after seeing something similar published by Time magazine. My reaction to Time’s choices, like Linda’s to mine, was along the lines of “what – are they crazy?”
Because this is my list, I get to make up the rules, and I decided to include only novels that have changed my life. So my picks aren’t the best books ever written (though some arguably are) nor the most entertaining (though, of course, some are charming.) But each, at a certain point in my life, made an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten.
I’ll begin with the Bobbsey Twin books because they were the first long stories I read on my own, and they introduced me to the joy of reading for pleasure. Someone gave me a dog-eared, used-up copy of the initial title, and I was so excited when I finished it that Daddy promised we’d hunt up the newly organized library over at the county seat, and see if they had some more.
But when we got to town, we weren’t able to locate the library although we walked up and down the main street, where we understood it to be, time after time. Since I was on the verge of tears, Daddy began to stop people on the sidewalk for directions. The third man we asked knew where it was.
At last, we opened the right door, hidden beside the drugstore, and climbed a steep, narrow staircase lit by one naked light bulb dangling high in a plaster sky. In my memory, everything in the chilly stairwell was painted brown, the bare wooden steps, the close damp walls. As each of my ascending footsteps echoed in the hollow space, I began to second-guess my quest for the Bobbsey Twins.
If the stairs were a sort of Purgatory, what we found at the top of the long steps was a little bit of Heaven. A plump, gray angel named Mrs. Beverly kindly welcomed us into a suite of two rooms, lit with bright, fluorescent lights, and stuffed with colorful books on white shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. A blast of warm air hit us as we walked through the door. Then, as in all seasons, the rooms smelled faintly of gas from the clucking space heater, and to this day I associate that odor with libraries. For me, it’s a happy scent.
The library and I grew together. It moved locations, again and again, becoming ever larger and more sophisticated. I, too, moved on to bigger things. All of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Long Winter, especially, impressed me. I tried to imagine Daddy tunneling through snow as high as the house to reach the barn like Pa Ingalls had to do on the prairie. Later, Alcott’s Little Women introduced this only child to the sisters I yearned to have.
At sixteen, I read Gone With the Wind and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Wolfe’s lyrical prose intoxicated me, and GWTW showed me what great storytelling could be. Both made me think about the importance of family and place in literature – and in life.
I also read Arnow’s The Dollmaker about this time. For the longest while, since no one ever mentioned it in my classes, I thought I was the only one who knew about it, that it was my personal, secret masterpiece. All Kentucky high school students should be required to read it.
In college, I had to re-read Huckleberry Finn – a book I’d read as a youngster – and I decided that it was the great American novel. I was coming of age in the turbulent 1960’s, and here was Mark Twain, reaching across a century, pointing out most everything I needed to consider.
I also discovered Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Ulysses in college. I didn’t enjoy those books, but I began to glimpse the limitless possibilities of written language. There was Faulkner, too. I like As I lay Dying the best. No reason. And James Agee’s A Death in the Family. I wish I’d written that one.
Cather’s My Antonia and Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth should be required reading for all Americans. This was how the west was really won. I would add The Northwest Passage and Steinbeck’s Great Depression epic, The Grapes of Wrath to my American must-read list. Kentuckians should read Eckart’s The Frontiersman.
As an adult, reading for fun, I enjoyed Michener’s bestsellers. I especially admired Chesapeake, a story about my own heritage, and The Source, a thoughtful examination of the Bible’s history. Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga helped me understand the English better, and was a good soap opera read to boot.
I can’t leave out Watership Down. Even though its supposedly about rabbits, it covers about all there is to know about civilization. And I like anything by Lee Smith. She makes me laugh and think, and she writes about my neck of the woods. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day should be read by the young, rather than the old, for whom it may come too late.
I’m glad I’ve read Run With the Horsemen and Cold Sassy Tree, wonderful stories about growing up in the south. They made me think I could write about my own childhood in rural Kentucky.
Did I mention Charlotte’s Web? Well, obviously this list isn’t complete. I can’t discuss in this short space all the books it’s taken a lifetime to discover. I haven’t even read all the books on my intend-to list. But as Charlotte said, a lifetime is all anyone has. I'd better get busy.
©Copyright Georgia Green Stamper 2012