I remember Granddad as an old man, sitting in his reading chair or working in his garden, but you could still see the younger man in him, the one who had ridden the rails during the Depression, seeking work in California and Oregon with his brother-in-law Vines.  He jumped those trains and saw the West, this son of a town sheriff and railroad man who in his youth had seen Geronimo at Fort Sill and met Frank James.  He was a working man who always seemed to dress well—I remember a picture of him in a double-breasted suit and snap-brim hat, a flower in his lapel, posing with my grandmother, and even in his work clothes he seemed neat and well groomed.  He had a distinguished sounding name—Oliver Armstrong Allensworth—for a man from such a humble background.

And Granddad always had his books with him.

The books reinforced the stories he’d tell: stories of the James boys and the last Comanche war chief, Quanah Parker, and of his travels out West and the Great Depression, and there were old stories passed down in the family.  We would sit on a Sunday afternoon in the room where he kept his books in a cabinet next to his reading chair.  Sunday afternoons might mean watermelon outside, or the wonderful aroma of my grandmother frying chicken, the best I ever had, in the kitchen of the house that sat on cinder blocks at the end of a gravel road.  It had a big yard and a goldfish pond Granddad had built, and you could see the vast garden from the window.  There was a Victrola where my grandmother kept her Bob Wills records, thick as plate glass, and pictures of roosters and other animals my Uncle Taft had made.  But it was the stories and the books that drew me.  Sometimes Granddad would reach for one, and leaf through it and read a passage.  It might be from a classic like the Iliad, or from an adventure story (he favored Rafael Sabatini and Westerns), a mystery, or a history book.  We read everything and savored the words.  Sometimes he seemed to have a need to speak them, and we enjoyed every one.

Granddad was a man who read for knowledge and wisdom, but most of all for pleasure.  Not entertainment in the sense of a temporary diversion, but for pleasure, which is something else again.  Pleasure stays with you, and you are not likely to forget a book that gives you pleasure.  Reading for pleasure is a lost art, because the world moves too fast now to savor anything, or to cultivate such pleasures, connecting the words on a page to the sights and sounds around you, the characters to people you know, enjoying the look of the book’s cover art and even the smell of the pages, and being able to distinguish a Scribner’s from a Doubleday, the New American Library from The Dial Press, right down to the typeface.

Like Granddad, I would sometimes open a favorite book and read particular passages again and again:

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. . . . Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

—Moby-Dick: or The Whale, by Herman Melville


I have the Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick with the marvelous illustrations by Rockwell Kent.

This is the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

—Requiem, by Robert Louis Stevenson


That passage is from the first book of poetry I ever owned, One Hundred and One Famous Poems, compiled by Roy J. Cook.  I loved the old-fashioned portraits of the poets, with their beards and high collars.  Their dignity was on every page.

Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.  And then he knew that there was where he was going.

—The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway

That is one of the cleanest and clearest passages written by “Papa.”

He was tall and terrible there in the road, looming up gigantic in the half-light.  He was the man I saw the first day, a stranger, dark and foreboding, forging his lone way out of an unknown past in the utter loneliness of his own immovable and instinctive defiance.  He was the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror . . . The impact of the menace that marked him was like a physical blow.

—Shane, by Jack Schaefer

Granddad loved Westerns, and Shane is one of my favorites.  I’ve kept many of the paperbacks he gave me by authors like Louis L’Amour, Luke Short, Max Brand, and this one by Jack Schaefer.  It’s a Bantam paperback, still in good condition, with that distinctive red rooster on the spine.

Granddad would trade books at a local used-book shop, then let me take the ones I wanted.  I would sometimes test the patience of my understanding mother, spending hours in a book shop or at the library, trying to choose, and accumulating so many books that my carpenter father built beautiful bookshelves in the room I shared with my brother, bookshelves with cabinets and a solid desk my son has now, with bookshelves over it.  I filled the shelves and then piled the books in boxes in our closet.  I still have most of them.  Parting with a book was out of the question.

One of the books I have not parted with is an old Bible I keep on my work desk.  The King James Bible is one of the most pleasurable of books to read:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

—John 1:1-4

Granddad and I both loved mysteries and thrillers and hard-nosed pulps, everything from Sherlock Holmes to Nero Wolfe, from Mike Hammer to Philip Marlow.  A book I count among my most prized possessions is The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a stout and substantial volume I saw at Sears.  It was a Christmas gift when I was ten or eleven, and I read those marvelous stories to my children—“Quick Watson, the game’s afoot!”—time and again.

I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face.  After a little while, I felt a little better, but very little.  I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country.  What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.  I put them on and went out of the room.

—Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

I think Marlow liked books, too.  I don’t know what he would have made of Twitter, or the loss of what novelist Larry McMurtry calls the “book culture.”  McMurtry has lamented the death of that culture, seeing the consumption of data, the “processing” of information streams, and gadgets replacing books.  Time for reflection and due consideration is becoming a thing of the past.  But I think the author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show meant something else, too, and that is the pleasure of reading a book, something wrapped up in the form, appearance, and heft of the written word in print, substantial and memorable in a way that ephemeral words reproduced on a screen cannot be.

The books and the passages and, most of all, the sheer pleasure of the experience of books came back to me while I was straightening out my collection recently, enjoying the handling of the books and the cover art, especially of the science-fiction and fantasy books, and the adventure stories for boys like Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan stories and Martian books, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, each one a world of its own, each at one time exciting a boy’s sense of wonder with characters that seemed like real people, characters such as Captain Nemo and Ned Land and the Time Traveler.  In a favorite spot, at the right time, they came alive, and the act of reading was merged with the lived, the imagined, and the dreamed of.