There it stood on a sale table, all 11 volumes lined up tight and orderly as cadets on parade, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization.
The Friends of the Library had slapped a price tag on Volume IV.
“That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”
— A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, XL
Sometimes joy and beauty strike like thunderbolts. One minute we are going about our daily routine, minding our own business, and then bam! Tongues of flame leap into our hearts. The eyes of a barista behind the counter of our favorite coffee shop fork a bolt of lightning in our brain. We round an unfamiliar bend in the road, and some incredible vista of a mountain peak blows us away. We visit a gallery, enter a darkened room, and find ourselves so dazzled by a painting that our feet remained glued to the floor for an hour.
For many of us, Christmas preparations require the endurance of a marathoner and the speed of a lab rat on amphetamines. We hoist a tree in the den, decorate our homes, dash off greeting cards to people we last saw two years ago, race through the mall buying presents and stocking stuffers, plan and prepare a Christmas dinner that would buckle a lesser table, and get sloshed at parties while wearing the hat of an elf. The culture pumps holiday Red Bull into our veins: some radio stations are belting out Bing Crosby before Thanksgiving, by the second week of December films like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” jam the television, and every church in town offers a concert.
Every once in a great while, I come away from a book like some near-sighted fourth-grader who has just put on his first pair of glasses. The math problems on the whiteboard leap out at him; the words in his Open Court Reader are no longer a blur; the dimple in Jeannie Godine’s cheek is as fetching as her voice. I can see, the kid says to himself. I can really see.
I had my first encounter with a prize-winning Plott hound several years ago when I was hosting a Liars Bench program at Western Carolina University. I had asked David Brewin to bring Nannie, his Plott hound, to the program.
As I remember it now, Nannie was not on a leash, but it seemed unnecessary. She came and sat by David and surveyed the people in the audience, her dark brendle coat shimmering under the lights. No stranger to crowds, she was calm, even composed and she seemed to briefly study each individual on the crowded stage.
How did this happen?
I treasure my local public library for its friendly staff, its vibrant programs for my grandchildren, its many spacious tables, its twin carrels for study and privacy, its sun-lit vestibule where patrons may eat lunch and drink coffee while reading, typing on their laptops, or visiting with friends. The collection of books is unremarkable, but adequate. All in all, I would judge this library a cut above many comparable institutions. The congenial atmosphere is conducive to work, and I come here several afternoons a week to escape my apartment, to work, write, and read, and to browse the stacks when I need a break.
Michael D. O’Brien, Canadian novelist and painter, essayist and lecturer, is the author of what I call “door-stop” books. His works of fiction, most of which I have read and all of which I enjoyed immensely, are hefty tomes which, if one so wished, could double as dumbbells, weapons of defense, and as I say, door stoppers.
A number of Mark Helprin’s works — Winter’s Tale, Memoir From Antproof Case, and more — have appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List. Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, his story of an Italian army officer and his struggles for survival during the First World War, is a thick novel which I have read twice and to which I return on a regular basis, rereading favorite scenes, always astonished by the beauty of writing and touched again and again by certain passages. His Freddy and Fredericka, a story whose characters are loosely modeled on Prince Charles and Princess Diana, stands alongside John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans novel, A Confederacy Of Dunces, as perhaps the two funniest novels I have ever read.
If the saying “timing is everything” is true, then John Lane’s new collection of poems by Mercer University Press is right on time.