Old ladies, widows, dowagers and spinsters collect cats. Stacks of cats. Herds of cats. Swarms of cats.
Not being an old lady and having slim prospects of ever becoming one, I started early collecting books.
I was not yet 5 years old when I acquired my first volume. It was a Little Golden Book entitled “The Little Red Hen.” With this prize, a Boy Scout manual and a tattered True Magazine, I was in the library business.
Toss in the daily and Sunday comics, and I was fixed for reading material.
The Little Red Hen baked bread and taught the other barnyard animals a lesson when they refused to help. The scout manual had instructions for building a boat, a stern wheeler, powered by a rubber band.
True carried stories of World War II soldiers discovering beautiful Amazons on the South Seas isles. The grass-skirted beauties kept men as pets, battled neighboring warrior tribes and worshiped in a wreck of a Curtis A-18 Shrike, a medium range bomber serving as a temple for the islanders’ cargo cult.
In my family, anyone who collected anything could count on receiving nothing else on birthdays or Christmas. My oldest sister brought home two sets of salt and pepper shakers from a trip to Florida. In 10 years she had 147 pairs of S&P dispensers. She didn’t have the heart to scream, “Enough already!”
I collected books after the same fashion.
When my sister moved to California, she left me her 52-volume set of The Great Books of the Western World. At the age of 17, I reckoned that reading all those classics would make me both a gentleman AND a scholar. I never read most of them, but I stored all of them in my growing book shelves.
In summer I would harvest new books from garage sales and secondhand shops.
I struck the mother lode in Helena (a small city with a gargantuan lawyer population). Lawyers have shelves of books in their offices, more shelves in their homes. They display these literary works to show that they are gentlemen and scholars. Ungrateful heirs pack the books off to the secondhand shops when they cash in their writs.
In a slum cum garbage dump, I found the Monkey Man. The Monkey Man ran a secondhand shop from a shed on Moccasin Flats. He had no monkeys to sell, but he did sell Monkey Food, or so said the sign above the door.
Another sign advertised “Haircuts.” There was no price on the haircuts. They were negotiable. He would cut hair for a couple of bucks or swap a haircut for a half-dozen antique beer bottles. That’s probably how he came into the Monkey Food.
Why collect books? Because they are cleaner than cats. In time I had many more books than I had read. What did I expect was hidden in those thousands of pages? The secret of levitation? Sure-fire cat fishing methods? The phone numbers of all the hotties who have appeared on “America’s Hottest Girls.”
(Who was I kidding? I would never have the nerve to call one of those bunnies.)
I hoarded books like old widows hoard cats, like Silas Marner hoarded gold, like a squirrel hoards nuts.
I told myself that this glacier of books was my growing reference library. I might at any moment need to pull one to check a fact, date or idea. I would someday read them all again with the fresh perspective of middle age or the experience of an elder.
I lied. Once read and shelved, the books were seldom touched again.
The exception came anytime I believed a friend (or a total stranger) desperately needed one of the volumes housed in my bookcases. I forced my most cherished books on people who did not want them, would not read them and could not remember borrowing them three weeks, six months or 10 years later.
Me: “Here! You must read this. It’s a life changer.”
Poor Sap captured by my unwanted attention: “I really don’t have time … .”
Me: “Take it! Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down.”
Today, I suspect that many of those books were put down before the victim reached home.
No one ever returned a book I had loaned them.
On the other hand, I never returned a book I had borrowed.
Once, I borrowed a biography of the apostle Paul. I resolved several times to return it but never succeeded.
The owner of the book was a college professor. Religion had not triggered my curiosity. My scant knowledge of the Paul’s life was stuffed with exciting facts. The man had been stoned, shipwrecked, beaten and tossed over a city wall into a garbage heap. Sounded like an adventure tale to me.
The professor’s book was a disappointment. After a chapter or two, I tucked it away and forgot it. Perhaps a year later I learned that the prof was gravely ill.
“He’ll die before I get the book back to him,” I gasped.
He did not die. So, I did not return the book.
Years later I caught a second report of his pending death. This one was no false alarm. I thought, “I should have returned the book the first time he died.”