Almost Book Friends

Almost Book Friends

“Mind if I sit here”

Two things strike me simultaneously:  We’re in a busy airport, flights have been delayed by snow and ice, few seats are open, and I can’t remember the last time anyone was courteous enough to ask.  And, in that same instant, I detect an accent, mildly central European, perhaps Israeli.  This could get complicated.

As he sits, my seat neighbor points to my shoes and asks, “You a runner?”  I’m not and explain that I’m not, without going into an explanation of my personal shopping creed, a set of convictions so rigid that I often buy and wear shoes and clothing somewhat at odds with my true persona.  Cheap but serviceable, in other words.  As I write, it strikes me that may, in fact, be my true persona, but to return to the moment at hand.

He’s brought his shoes, he says, but isn’t sure he’ll have time to run as he is heading to Medford for an intensive training seminar involving plastics and coatings.  I’m not sure that any sentence could have more surely prompted me to trot out some elaborate shuffling with the book I had been reading, but this guy is not to be shuffled off.

“I was in San Diego once, when my son finished boot camp, but this is the Northwest, huh?”

I nod and ask the question that had to be asked.

Newark, New Jersey,  he says, not a pretty place to live, he says, but affordable.  His son now lives in Arizona.  Yuma.  He and his wife might visit again, but not in the summer.

I agree that Yuma, Arizona in the summer would be hot, hellacious actually, but I keep that assessment to myself.   He points to my book and asks what I’m reading.  Ordinarily I would have been trying to mute my discomfort in flying by reading a fairly grisly potboiling tough guy police procedural, but I’d finally started George Saunders’ first novel and had found it irresistible.  Most casual conversations die quickly when literary fiction arrives as a topic, but not this time.

“I was a terrible student.  I don’t think we read anything, really, maybe some short stories.”  I might have nodded again and slumped back  into ostentatious reading, but it turns out that I am fascinated by what people read in school.  I confessed that I had been a teacher and asked him if he could recall any particular stories or collection, scanning my own memory of what might have been on the list in the late 1960’s , when I figured he might have been a high school freshman.  Maybe, “Paul’s Case” I thought, or a Steinbeck short story.

The names came quickly.  “Leiningen vs the ants”, “The Most Dangerous Game” He paused, then shrugged.  “I don’t remember the others.””

I do.  These were among the dozen stories contained in a remarkable collection, Great Tales of Action and Adventure, edited by George Bennett

Two copies of Great Tales of Action and Adventure are in my bookcase.  I bought both as used books from Powell’s.  I, too, read the stories in the ninth grade and can recall each in sharp detail.  Saki’s “The Interlopers”, still as unsettling as an extremely compact account of unexpected death at the paws of wild wolves could be.  I had been knocked out by Saki (H.H. Munro) and particularly taken with “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Open Window”, two stories with subtly surprising endings, a fondness for which unfortunately  crept into my own writing for the next decade, except for the subtle part.  “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Poe, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” by Conan Doyle, ” “August Heat” by W.F. Harvey.  That one was a corker.  It’s not exactly a ghost story, but I found it again in a DC comic, Secrets of Sinister House.

This guy read twelve of my favorite stories!

I have three or four “book friends”.  I’ve met some of them no more than twice, but we fell into conversation about books and bonded.  We don’t share the same tastes, exactly, but we take books seriously, which is not to say that we bond over serious books.  Anyone who has experienced the rhapsody with which technologically minded people can speak of the Logitech Wireless solar keyboard K750 for Mac will understand that there is a subset of humans who are book nerds, book geeks.  We know each other almost immediately as we respond to even the slightest reference to any of the books we have loved (immoderately loved, recklessly loved – see?) as a Great White Shark does to freshly slaughtered chum.  Our voices rise, we lean into the conversation, we grab pencil and paper to copy down recommended reading.

Great Tales of Action and Adventure was a gateway read for me.  It was presented as a text to be considered in class, thus a collection worth studying.  And these were not dusty classics; these were the sorts of stories I had been reading for pleasure.  A clunky ninth grade book nerd had been given permission to take seriously a book I loved from the start.  That may have been the moment when I saw that I could be a teacher.

“My wife never read at all.”  I am jerked back from “Sredni Vashtar” to find myself in  a conversation with a potential book friend, a person to whom I might recommend one of the books I love.  “She didn’t know about books.  But now we read to each other.”

They read Kidnapped to each other, then Treasure Island.  The Chronicles of Narnia had been a great hit, followed by the C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).  “We tried to read his books on philosophy and religion, but we didn’t understand them.”  I am impressed by their willingness to follow an author into a challenging conversation, but before I can respond with some suggestions they might enjoy, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, he’s off again.

They’re reading L.L. Baum’s Oz books, now up to the fifth, which I recall is The Road to Oz, a strange, almost psychedelic, melange in which Dorothy Gale and the Shaggy Man, a disabled hobo, set out on an afternoon’s walk, meet two of Baum’s least engaging characters, Button Bright, a rich kid in a sailor suit, and Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter.  It’s all too precious until the gang arrives in Foxville.  Talking foxes are irresistible, and the chapter in Foxville almost saves the messy, Love Boat cast of faded characters brought out of retirement for a cameo appearance in this long wandering novel, but there’s no magic left in Baum’s Oz factory this time.

Baum was a racist, welcoming the extermination of Native Americans in a famous screed in which he describes Indians as “…a pack of whining curs who lick the hand of those that smite them.”  So, I’m not a fan even though I read the entire series as a kid.  I look over at my seat neighbor and decide we’ve made good use of our time waiting to board, but he will not be a book buddy.  I toss out a tentative recommendation, thinking they might enjoy reading The Golden Compass, but no pencil emerges, there’s no request for a piece of paper.

I can go for weeks without catching myself being myself, but as I wish my companion a good trip, I realize that before we had conversed, I had made up a story about him, based on his accent, his suit, his shoes.  I thought I was sitting next to a Willy Loman, a drab salesman pitching the plastic coatings in his line of coatings, liked but not well-liked. Perhaps that is his job, but at the end of the day, when he gets back from Medford, he’ll sit down with his wife and read The Emerald City of Oz to his wife, probably slowing down as they understand the crushing indebtedness facing the Gale family in the wake of the celebrated tornado’s churning through their farmstead.  They’ll talk about the characters, I guess, then go to bed, dreaming of the Gnome King and the plot to conqquer Oz.

I hope he reads better books along the way, but he is reading and enjoying reading.  I should have asked for his address. I have an extra copy of Great Tales of Action and Adventure; his wife might enjoy it.

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