Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Book Worm

I think I was the youngest person ever to be issued a library card from the St. Tammany Parish (La.) Library System. The minimum age requirement for a card was 5, but I got my first at 4. My dad was president of the Friends of the Library group at that time. The Parish Library System was opening a new Slidell branch at that time, moving out of its cramped Old Towne location to a beautiful new building just three blocks from my house.

Because my dad was helping shelve books and otherwise prepare for the new site’s opening, my friend Caitlin Haynes and I got to go one afternoon to the new library before it officially opened. There my dad twisted a librarian’s arm a bit and got her to issue me a library card at the age of 4.

That legacy of a love of books and stories is, I think, one of the greatest lesson I’ve learned from my dad. It started with him telling and reading me stories before I could read myself. My favorites were his renditions of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and some of the stories he told about his family: the time his grandfather took him on a cruise to Brazil; the time his two aunts took him and some of his brothers and sisters on a train trip to Washington to attend President Kennedy’s inauguration; the time his brother Philip wore his shoes and ruined them after jumping off a friend’s back porch and landing on a nail; the time his brother Bill was playing in the street, was accidentally hit by a car and had to wear a full-length leg cast that required him to go to the bathroom in a bedpan for several weeks.

My dad is a prolific reader. He reads about 7 books a month, can read 400 words a minute without speed reading and though he’s no longer president of the Friends of the Library, he visits it about 3 times a week. He’s the kind of person who will watch reruns of The West Wing on Bravo but bring a book with him to the couch so he can read during commercials.

There’s even a good family story that illustrates my dad’s love for books. My dad is the oldest of 11 children. When he was about 13 or 14 years old, his parents left him in charge of watching a few of his younger brothers and sisters when they went out. Instead of keeping an eye on them, he just sat in the living room and read. He was so enthralled in the book, in fact, that he didn’t notice some of his siblings had clogged the kitchen sink, turned on the water and flooded my grandmother’s kitchen floor. Needless to say, my grandparents were none too happy with him when they returned.

My dad also has what I would consider a photographic memory (though he insists he doesn’t have one). My dad’s favorite genre of literature is sci-fi and fantasy. When I was a senior in high school and reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, my dad would periodically ask me where I was in the book and then talk about it with me. I remember one night I had reached an end of a chapter in The Return of the King and told him. He asked what happened in that chapter. I told him. He said, “Oh, yes!” then began summing up the end of the chapter for me again. When I looked at the end of the chapter again in the book, I realized that he had recited the paragraph’s last chapter nearly verbatim. I asked him when the last time he read LOTR was. He said about 25 years ago.

Or last fall, when I was reading The Odyssey for my literature class, he asked me what book I was on. I responded with the book number (I think it was 19). He then proceeded, with only that information, to tell me exactly what happened in that book, no more and no less. I asked him when the last time he read The Odyssey was. I think he said it hadn’t been since college.

But the verbatim recitations of parts of books isn’t the important thing here. It’s that he’s taught me to be a “lifelong learner.” And for that, I thank you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I love you.