Listen up, you youngsters who read blog posts like this (if you exist): an old man is going to tell some tales of what it was like in the Old Days when books -- yes, books, of the paper variety -- were way more important in people's lives than they are now.
These memories were stimulated by the donation I made today of eight boxes containing 201 books to the Friends of Salem Public Library.
Needing to downsize my collection, I spent quite a bit of time culling through a bunch of books, deciding which of them I'd fallen sufficiently out of love with to warrant boxing up and offering for adoption through the Friends online bookstore and annual sale.
When I handed off the boxes at the Salem Library this afternoon, I couldn't help but think of how different my first exposure to a library was after my recently divorced mother moved to Three Rivers, California in 1955, when I was seven years old.
Three Rivers nestles in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. It features, not surprisingly, three branches of the Kaweah River, the South, Middle, and North Forks. Back then, the population likely was around 700 full-time residents.
There wasn't a "real" library.
But I recall my mother taking me to two libraries in private homes. Each was run by a elderly lady. Ida Purdy, I'm pretty sure, was one. A Google cache says she was a pioneer woman who settled in Three Rivers in the 1800's (born 1877, died 1968), which fits with my memory.
We'd knock on the door. The homeowner would let us in. A couple of rooms were devoted to the lending library. I learned to read well at a young age, so this was a treat for me.
My mother liked to tell the story of how, when she moved to El Paso, Texas immediately after splitting up with my father, she applied to have me admitted to a parochial school kindergarten. To help demonstrate my qualifications, she brought along the front page of the local newspaper, handed it to me, and said "Read it, Brian." Or, Briney, as I was called at the time.
I could. I distinctly remember learning about the non-existence of Santa Claus after getting a toy and asking my mother, "Why does it say Made in Japan on it?" To her credit, she came clean about the whole North Pole and Santa's Workshop thing on the spot.
Carolyn Hines, my mother, was an avid book lover and seeker of truth. I've found myself adopting her habit of making copious notes in the back blank pages of non-fiction books: a page number, followed by what she found meaningful in that part of the book.
There's no way I could bring myself to give away any of her books that I inherited after she died. Like, "The Fourth Way" by P.D. Ouspensky. Some pencil notes in her barely legible handwriting (like mother, like son) are in the back.
I understand the allure of e-books. But I am completely incapable of reading anything other than books printed on paper. I need to feel the heft of the book, turn the pages with my fingers, highlight passages with a marker, write in the margins and end pages.
I'm a creature of my upbringing. Young people today, I'm pretty sure, won't have the same relationship with paper books. Which isn't a bad thing. Just different.
With financial help from my grandmother, my mother was able to build a house in Three Rivers several years after we moved there. The bookshelves in the living room were built to perfectly fit the Great Books of the Western World on a single shelf. I still have those books. They no longer fit on a single shelf.
No big deal. What's important is that I have these books. When I want to read Plato, Hume, Descartes, or other authors, I can pick up a volume that my mother cherished, and I now do. That can't happen with a book on a Kindle.
Yeah, I know that I sound like someone nostalgic about using a big black corded telephone on a party line, another memory of mine. Or getting up on the roof of our house to change a TV channel by turning the antenna, something I also did as a child. Believe me, I much prefer my iPhone and our DirecTV satellite dish.
Books just have a different hold on me, because of my upbringing and history with them.
In the 1950s, at least for my mother and many of her friends, the release of a long-awaited novel was greeted with the same fervor as a blockbuster movie is today. I recall how excited she was about getting a copy of "Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak. Publishing of the book in this country was a Really Big Deal.
Now... there's no longer any similar widespread buzz about a newly released novel. This isn't sad. Times change. It's just different.
A few final memories:
My mother was deeply conservative, a loyal Republican through and through. However, these were the days of intellectual, fact-based, scientifically-minded Republicanism. I grew up reading William F. Buckley's National Review. The articles were thoughtful, well-written, persuasive.
Maybe they still are.
But the Republican party of today doesn't pay much attention to truth and reality. My mother would be aghast at Donald Trump and his unceasing stream of lies. The GOP, and America as a whole, used to honor truth-telling. Unfortunately, no longer.
I can't claim that the decline of books, and the rise of the Internet, is responsible for this. But it must play a part.
When I was growing up, we had the Encyclopedia Brittanica and World Book Encyclopedia in our house. I referred to these books often in elementary and high school. They contained solid factual knowledge about the world, as did the yearly World Almanac my mother bought every year.
These days, people can manufacture their own realities out of the multitude of unreliable cyberspace sources. Digital information can be altered on a whim. The content of books can't. Again, I realize this makes me sound old-fashioned, but so be it.
Lastly, I deeply admire my mother's respect for unfettered access to books.
At some point during my Three Rivers Elementary School (1st - 8th grade) education, our town got a real library. Which still exists.
After it opened, us students would walk from the elementary school to the library, since the school didn't have one. I was the only child in my class who had a permission slip from a parent allowing me to check out any book I wanted. Including the books in the adult section with "good parts."
Which made me popular with my guy friends.
Naturally my mother bought the popular novel "Lolita" when it came out. Vladamir Nabokov's story of a man's sexual relationship with his 12 year old stepdaughter was scandalous at the time, and maybe still is. But my mother made no attempt to hide the book from me.
I read the "good parts." Several times. They weren't as titillating in reality as my pre-adolescent mind would have imagined them to be.
Such is the power of books: reality and truth-telling always is preferable to illusion and falsehoods. A lesson to remember in these truth-challenged times.