I booked a late flight home from a recent conference in Baltimore with the idea that I’d have most of the day to explore the city, or at least the areas near the hotel.
Mother Nature, however, had other plans and washed away my plans. On the way to lunch a colleague spotted a used bookstore. I can think of no better way to kill time on a rainy afternoon than to peruse stacks of books.
You can tell if a bookstore is good the moment the smell hits you. This one was fantastic. Despite the rain, inside the air was somehow dry and musty. It had an intoxicating fragrance of leather, binding glue and aging ink.
Books have always been a refuge for me on foul days. I was in middle school when, during the height of a thunderstorm, I discovered a copy of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” in the back of a closet at my grandparents’ home. Its blue cloth cover did little to reveal the compelling story within. It wasn’t until much later I learned Wouk’s story centered on the commander of a World War II Navy ship and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1952.
When I read “My Side of the Mountain,” by Jean Craighead George, I was determined to run away from home and live in the Catskill Mountains just like Sam Gribley. I made it all of two houses down before my mother found me in a neighbor’s backyard. After a few years passed, when I was less of a flight risk, I received the other two books in the trilogy as a Christmas present.
From time to time, I wonder what it would be like to shun modern society and live off the land in some remote corner of the world. Thankfully I live in Kansas where the weather often delivers reminders of modern conveniences, like central air and indoor plumbing.
I discovered horror writer Dean Koontz by accident in a Burlington, Colo., gas station. Returning from a family ski trip, we were trapped there during a mid-March blizzard. I thought I’d discovered the next Stephen King until my dad informed me he’d been reading Koontz since the 1970s.
While that dented my pride, I’ll forever be in my father’s debt for his book suggestions. He had a voracious appetite for the printed word, often reading several books a week. It wasn’t until I was a little older, probably in college, that the recommendations started rolling in.
First it was James Clavell’s “Nobel House” part of a six-book chronicle of a family’s decades of service to the British Empire in Asia. Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full,” James Michener’s “The Source,” and others followed.
Michener’s “Chesapeake” was on prominent display in the Baltimore bookstore, alongside other authors and novels based in and around the region, like journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken. Of course, there was plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, father of the modern detective story and famous Baltimore resident.
After spending a couple hours browsing through the store, I figured I needed to get serious about finding something to buy. “Chesapeake” was out because I wasn’t going to lug a 900-page tome on an airplane. I finally settled on Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” which chronicles the middle-aged author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s what I imagine Sam Gribley doing as an adult.
The one lament I have is I should have picked up a couple more books. I was hopeful to leave the rain in Baltimore. I figured once I returned, I would spend my free time hiking and fishing, not rushing to mow the lawn between downpours. Instead of casting into a lake, I’ve been swiping my library card. It’s not a terrible trade, but I’m ready for some sunny days.
“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service.