Some of my earliest memories are of tall bookcases filled with books, mostly my father’s books, which I found endlessly intriguing though for years I couldn’t read them. Couldn’t read, period. Just a word here and there. Prior to entering a new school for first grade, I was tested on a list of sight words and recognized only a few. In retrospect, I’m not even sure I knew what they meant. I knew I’d seen them. Also I was aware that it would look really bad to circle nothing.
It will sound corny and unbelievable, but the first word I truly remember learning was “book.” It was on a TV show called Captain Kangaroo. The mustachioed Captain held up a book, said the word, and I saw the caption. BOOK. Oh, I thought. Now I get it.
Around the age of 12, combing through my father’s library one day, I picked up his copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and had to laugh: my younger self had tried to read the book and circled every word she knew on the first few pages: mostly “the” and “and.”
Fast-forward through several decades: I tore through thousands of books—books at school, books from Santa, books from the library…. More recently, since my father “retired” (let’s be honest: he has retired and un-retired at least eleven times), he has taken to giving me a box of books every time I visit. This is a function of two things: first, that my parents have run out of shelf space; second, that he has more time on his hands and chews through books the way some people eat potato chips.
I couldn’t possibly read every book he gives me, of course. I still have a day job. Also he tends to like mysteries and dense, thick histories more than I do. But I like to think that eventually I will retire, too, and get to them all.
In the meantime, the latest installment delivered this: IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides. Subtitled The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, it was not necessarily going to make the pre-retirement cut because I am about as interested in polar expeditions as I am in giant wildfires.
Obviously, if you are a fan of this blog, you can see where this is going.
It’s 410 pages, and I read it in three sittings. Wow. Thanks, Dad!!!