Friday, April 9, 2010

First Encounters

With some books, you always remember the first time you read them. I mean: you remember. How old you were. Where you were. Maybe even where you were sitting.

Those are great little flashback moments. Here are a few of mine.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: It was the tail-end of the sixties, and my brother Larry took me up to Sonoma State U for the day. His girlfriend (now wife) was in class, so we set up camp in the library. Larry did some work of his own, and I got bored (as kid brothers will do). After awhile, Larry dipped into the card catalog, snatched a book from the stacks, and dropped it in front of me. "I think you might like this one," he said, and he wasn't wrong. Inside the library, it was quiet. Outside, sirens blared as a Vietnam War protest started up. I didn't hear much of it -- I was on Mars with Ray Bradbury.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King: A little more than ten years later, I was working in a library myself. I'd decided those were pretty cool places, and once I nailed down the corners on my college career I went to work at a small public branch out in Brentwood -- not the LA neighborhood, but a (then) mostly agricultural town in the California Delta. Brentwood's grown a lot in the time since I worked there, but in those days it fit the definition of sleepy. There were lots of fruit stands and pick-your-own produce orchards, and the only place in town to eat was the truck stop.

The library itself was pretty new. The break room was a nice little corner -- only problem was that no one could afford furniture for it, so what we had was someone's old patio set. I used to sit back there on a white mesh chaise lounge and read. I blasted through several early Stephen King novels while catching breaks or lunch -- including 'Salem's Lot -- and then one day I read about a new King book in one of the trade magazines. It was from a small publisher, and (if I remember correctly) the reviewer described it as Stephen King meets The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.

Well, that was enough for me. I wanted that book. Only problem was, it was a little on the pricey side. I figured I'd keep my money in my pocket, see if I could track down a copy through inter-library loan (man, who knows what that book would be worth today if I'd snagged a first edition). Anyway, I was persistent. And that was a big plus in those pre-computer days, because inter-library loan involved forms with lots pages that were one step removed from carbon paper.

Wonder of wonders (and a few month later), I ended up with a copy of The Gunslinger. I sat in the break room and cracked the spine -- yep, that nice sharp sound told me no one had read this copy yet. That first sentence grabbed me by the collar and yanked me into King's world: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I followed, too.

True Grit by Charles Portis: I read this one on a beach in Hawaii. Maui to be exact, on the dry side of the island. I had brought a beat-up retired library copy on vacation, the kind of book I'd snag so I wouldn't feel guilty about leaving it behind somewhere. I flipped to the first page sitting on a lounge not much different than the one at the Brentwood library, and I was mesmerized by the voice of Mattie Ross, a girl on the hunt for her father's killer with the aide of one crusty U. S. Marshall, Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn. Way I remember it, I didn't even make it into the water that afternoon...but I could smell gunpowder on the trade winds, and that was a memory worth keeping.