author robert palmer author robert palmer

On Reading and Writing

Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.
     —Sean O’Faolain

If you are reading this, you probably love books, and bookstores, and libraries. I can still remember my first trip to a public library. I was about eight years old and lived in a village in upstate New York. One day, I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled across town to the big stone building on Church Street. This was long before all the debate over free-range parenting. I was just a kid on a bike, like a hundred other kids in town that day.

We had a library in my school, so I thought I knew what to expect when I breezed in the front door. I was wrong about that. To me, the place was huge. And the smell! It was the first time I ever smelled . . . books. Since that day, every time I go into a bookstore or library I test the air for that dusty, homey smell.

The woman at the desk spotted me and asked if I needed help. "Nope," I said. I had no idea where the card catalog was or anything else. I just wanted to wander around, to marvel at all those books—the same way I marveled at the elephants in the one-ring circus that came to town every summer.

I didn't even try to find the children's section. There was so much else to take in. Eventually, I settled down in the American history aisle and pulled a volume off the shelf about cowboy life in New Mexico. How that book ended up in our library, I'll never know. It was heavy going for an eight-year-old. No pictures! Still there was a chapter on cattle driving, and that hooked me. I stayed right there until closing time, six o'clock.

The woman from the desk came to tell me it was time to leave, and she helped me put the book back on the shelf. I recall getting my bearings so I could find my way back to that spot and that book. "You can come back anytime," she yelled as I went out the door. You bet I will, I thought.

What is it about books? I never get the same feeling when I lay down fifteen dollars to see a movie. It's the promise of a journey, I think. With the first page of a book, I'm starting down a new road, with new people, new conversations, new sights and sounds. And books last. That journey will go on for hours, for days usually, whether I'm cranky or worried or happy or distracted about work. Those things fall away when I start to read.

I never finished that book about New Mexico. Too many others caught my attention. I've always been a promiscuous reader. Still, I remember a passage from the chapter I did get through. Cowboys used to grease their saddles so they wouldn't squeak. The squeaking sound—at the wrong time, on the wrong night—could start a stampede. That's the way books really pay off: something to remember for a lifetime. A good book will do that a dozen times over.