There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to face the truth, and accept that something is getting out of hand. He has to look himself in the mirror and say, “If you don’t do something about this soon, there will be trouble.”
This is not an easy thing for any man to admit, especially those of us brought up in the Baby Boom years. We still had plenty of strong men around to use as examples of how to live a strong, manly life. We had our grandfathers and fathers and uncles, many of whom were war veterans, or at least had spent time in the military during peacetime. These men knew a thing or two about discipline, and they tried their best to teach these ways to us, usually just by example, hoping we would observe them and absorb their lessons naturally. Occasionally they had to resort to direct instruction. They set high standards for us, and as we struggled with the new freedoms brought on by the post-Vietnam era of do-your-own-thing indulgence, many of us slipped into habits that would eventually prove to be expensive, maybe unhealthy, and sometimes downright dangerous. Some of us were never able to climb out of the hole, no matter how hard we tried.
For some men, it’s alcohol or illegal drugs. For others, it’s pornography, or perhaps the pursuit of real women who are not their wives. Many men lose themselves in pursuits that, taken in reasonable amounts, would be harmless, even healthy: golf, hunting, fishing.
For me, it’s books.
One man’s passion.
I learned to read while I was in kindergarten, using an old Dick and Jane book my parents had picked up somewhere. You remember Dick and Jane, the stars of a long series of books known as basal readers, written by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. They first appeared in the 1930s and were popular into the late sixties, when they started to come under criticism for not being multicultural; that is to say, the stories featured only white people. Millions of kids learned to read by following the simple adventures of Dick and Jane and their family, and very few of us turned out to be racists.
I’d have to say my book-collecting days started out in grade school. Every month or so, we’d get a chance to buy paperbacks through a program that kicked back some of the money to the school. The only one I remember specifically is a comic book version of The Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine, which my parents made me return, along with a note to the publisher saying that they didn’t feel including a book based on a work by drug-abusing hippies was appropriate for grade school kids. Well, maybe they weren’t that strident about it, but I definitely remember my mother not being pleased. Years later, I let my 2nd-grade daughter Kim watch the movie and she enjoyed it immensely.
But it was during this period that I was first introduced to great literature, thanks in large part to Mrs. Millman, who taught English at my junior high school. She urged me to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th-century series of detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, and I was hooked for good.
I also got into science fiction, reading the works of classic authors of the genre like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, whose Starship Troopers was published in 1959.
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I’d buy paperbacks and the occasional hardcover book, lugging them all around during my various moves. Things really didn’t start getting serious until the mid-1990s, when two things happened: I started studying the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and I rediscovered the joy of writing, something I’d done quite a bit of during my teens.
TR, the reader.
To say that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a voracious reader would be an understatement. Our 26th president would read two or three books a day, even during his presidency (1901-09). During his days as a rancher in what is now North Dakota, he often read while in the saddle. He took books with him wherever he went, even on his post-presidency expeditions to Africa and South America. He was also a prolific writer himself, author of nearly four dozen books and countless magazine articles. On the site bookriot.com, writer and reader Rebecca Joines Schinsky tells about discovering one of TR’s books at Commonwealth Books in Boston, and reading with joy what he had to say about books and reading: On the Mt. Rushmore of Literary Life.
Roosevelt devoured so many books because he was an accomplished speed-reader, a trait he’d learned in his youth. But not only could he read quickly, he retained what he read and could often recall it in minute detail. Here’s a great article from Art of Manliness about TR’s speed-reading, and how we can do it, too: Speed-read like TR.
Last summer, my brother Alan and I visited New York state, and two highlights (out of many) of our trip were our visits to two presidential homes, TR’s on Long Island and his cousin Franklin’s at Hyde Park. Both homes featured prodigious libraries, befitting their masters. FDR was a great reader himself, although not quite in TR’s class.
In my travels I have visited some of the world’s great libraries, but this one in Vienna, Austria, tops them all. It is the Prunksaal, the central hall of the Austrian National Library in the Hofburg Palace. By law, everything published in Austria, print or electronic, must have a copy stored here, plus books and articles about Austria that are published in other countries. It has artifacts dating back nearly 2,000 years, a huge collection of maps and nearly 400 globes.
So, next to the Prunksaal, and even by comparison to the TR and FDR collections, mine is quite modest, but here it is:
Theodore Roosevelt authored about 45 books in his lifetime, and I have nearly half of them. So, when I travel, I’m constantly on the lookout for antiquarian bookstores, and I’ve been known to haunt eBay occasionally. Like most collectors, I’m in search of the Holy Grail, in this case a TR book signed by the author. They’re out there, but they’re pricey.
Books aren’t the only things in my TR collection. I also have these campaign buttons. The one on the left is from the 1900 presidential campaign, when TR was on the ticket of incumbent William McKinley as vice president. In the middle, my most prized piece: a button from TR’s campaign for governor of New York state in 1899.
And did I say I have a Kindle? Yes, I picked up a new Kindle Fire last month, after my previous one was damaged beyond repair at the gym one morning. (Don’t ask.) How many books do I have on the Kindle? Let’s just say it’s a lot.
I suppose if I was motivated enough, I would count up all my books, including those on the Kindle, and then calculate how long it will take me to read all of them, assuming that once retirement comes around I will be able to devote two or three hours a day to reading. If I learn how to speed-read, I suppose I could get through all them by, say, age 80 or so. But that might take some of the enjoyment out of the experience.
Theodore Roosevelt once described books as “ammunition for the battle of life.” In that respect, you could say I am well-armed.