There are two piles on the cedar chest at the foot of our bed...always two, usually three, and sometimes even four. No, they are not dirty clothes that haven't yet made their way into the laundry room. They are books, magazines, newspapers, even mail and pamphlets, that I plan to read, or am already engrossed in. There is a loose order into which they are sorted. The ones I want to read soon are on top, going down in descending order of desire, down to the bottom where lie the ones I think I should read but am in no hurry to for one reason or another. Somewhere in the middle are the ones I want to reread, some for the umpteenth time.
I am a reader. I love to read. My wife would probably argue that I am an obsessive reader. I wouldn't really argue, although I prefer the term voracious to obsessive. At the table I may find myself reading food boxes. In public I read peoples' t-shirts. When I was out in the field in the Marines I read all the Louis Lamour books the other jarheads passed around, and sometimes found myself reading boxes, and c-rations, and toothpaste tubes.
When I was a kid I often alternated reading multiple books at the same time. I had a book on the snack bar for when I ate. I had another under my bed for when I was supposed to be going to sleep. I usually had one I was reading for English class and another that I read for enjoyment at school.
A few years back, when I realized that my half hour to 45 minute drives to and from work each day were spent listening to the radio with its dozens of mindless and often insultingly inane commercials which were repeated ad nauseum, my reading grew to include listening. I bought some audio books on CD and discovered a website (http://librivox.org/) where I could download lots of the classics for free, put them on a jump drive for use in my car stereo.
Reading has been a friend who has only rarely let me down; who would wait patiently when I didn't have time; and who never got jealous.
Reading has taken me to Africa with Ernest Hemingway, Peter Hathaway Capstick, and many others, where we pursued the greater kudu and followed elephants with tusks that nearly drug the ground.
I have rafted down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim and Tom, and explored the strength it takes to stand alone, as when Huck, who had been taught that abolitionism was a sin, was faced with standing up for his friend, the runaway slave, Jim, or giving him up as Huck's training, and the law, demanded. Huck wrestled with his conscience for a bit, then decided, "All right, then, I'll GO to hell". That simple comment still sends a thrill through me.
Alexandre Dumas allowed me to help Dante make his escape and become "The Count of Monte Cristo", and also to yell, "All for one and one for all!" alongside "The Three Musketeers."
I have fought for the underdog and against legal corruption with John Grisham.
I did battle with the mighty bolgani, rescued Jane, and swung through the trees alongside Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Tarzan of the Apes."
The depths of human depravity were my playground when I visited Transylvania with Bram Stoker's "Dracula" or skulked through the dark places with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
O'Henry taught me the meaning of love as I opened "The Gift of the Magi."
Long John Silver and I searched for gold and jewels in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."
The Sherriff of Nottingham didn't stand a chance when I accompanied "Robin Hood" and his merry men on their quest to preserve the throne for its rightful heir.
Louis Lamour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand took me into the west where we choked on dust and fought bad guys with our trusty six shooters. And we always got the girl, whether she had been stolen by desperados or Indians.
I was the Indian when I accompanied Natty Bumpo in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans."
I have travelled to foreign countries, through space, and to lands real, mythical, or fictional. I have fought evil in many ways. I have helped people do good things, and helped others to succeed. I have felt the overwhelming power of new love, and old love, and I have loved and lost.
How-to books have taught me so much - how to raise animals; how to plant a garden; how to repair a washer or dryer; and how to do any number of the construction projects I have undertaken.
And all the while I was exploring myself, learning how to think for myself and figure things out.
Sadly, I understand that reading has fallen into disfavor with those who have easy access to hundreds of television channels, the internet, and video games. Honestly, I feel that those people are poorer for that. I know that you can learn from television and even video games, but I don't believe those outlets afford the depth of thought and understanding that books do. I don't think they challenge the viewer to explore his or her imagination. At the same time, I think their easy digestion and seeming realism can substitute for real thought and convince their followers of facts that, well, just aren't true, such as the morality of things that are truly immoral.
With the opening of Malden's new library there are more opportunities than ever before for young readers to expand their worlds. I remember with great joy the many hours I spent in the old library...and in the one before that, exploring whatever interests I had at the time. I have been told that there are over 30,000 books in the new building. It costs you nothing to read any or all of them.
And you don't have to pile them up on your cedar chest.