Annotations, Ink Drinkers, and Pleasure Reading

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July 9, 2022 by libroshombre

            Knowing I’d just returned from a Seattle trip, a friend needlessly asked if I’d visited any bookstores.  Well, I plundered a few: Magus Books (the best used bookstore between Forget-Me-Not Books in Fairbanks and Powell’s Books in Portland), Elliott Bay Books (the best new bookstore within reach of Alaska), Lionheart in Pike’s Market (the kindest bookstore owner ever) Ada’s Technical Books (a quirky niche bookstore conveniently located near the Red Balloon Toy Store), and Arundel Books (my favorite rare book dealer).  I enter Arundel’s doors intent on buying something, though I know not what.  There are bound to be books awaiting that will excite my imagination while being gentle on the pocketbook.  I was able to pass up the bound collection of short stories by writers that included a favorite, Rex Stout (the owner knocked it down from $500 to $350 – as if) but did latch onto a nice one-volume abridgement of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” for $8, and some other treasures (including “How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor” and Roger Angell’s “Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion”) and asked for them to be shipped to Fairbanks.

            The prime reason for splurging on Arundel’s tomes was their potential mental stimulation, but anticipating the receiving and opening of the box comes pretty darn close.  You see, Arundel ships their books the proper way, and opening their box, and admiring the admirable packing, is an added thrill.  Each book is wrapped and taped tight as a drum in brown paper; two wrapped books are bound together in a stiff cardboard sleeve; the sleeves are spread apart by crumpled brown paper so there’s no jostling together and no dinged cover corners or bent pages.  Sort of the opposite of Amazon’s practices.

            Normally I avoid abridgements, but having read Gibbon unabridged, I knew the sometimes-excruciating detail he goes into.  I can’t recall any author who provides footnotes so copiously and wordily; in fact, Gibbon actually annotated his own great work.  I like annotated books since they enlarge my understanding and appreciation, and I own a small collection, including annotated copies of Mother Goose, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Canterbury Tales,” and Samuel Pepys’ “Diary,” and make use of our public library’s 311 annotated books.  These cover all sorts of subjects from the U.S Constitution, hockey rules and cooking to classics like Austen’s “Persuasion” and Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and all points in-between. 

            Recently I borrowed the library’s copies of “Swing It!: An Annotated History of Jive,” Jane Haigh’s  “Alaska Pioneer Interiors: An Annotated Photographic File,” and “Call of the Wild: Annotated and Illustrated” that’s packed with fascinating insights.  For example, London’s hero, the dog named Buck, was drawn from a dog named Jack whom he met while prospecting in the Yukon gold rush.   Jack was a St. Bernard-collie mix owned by two brothers he met there, Marshall and Lewis Bond.  London went home broke to San Francisco but stayed in touch with the Bond brothers and visited them at the California home of their father, Judge Bond.  And when he wrote “Call of the Wild,” he transformed Judge Bond into his novel’s Judge Miller character, and the Bond brothers’ wives were similarly immortalized.

            Call me a bookworm, and I freely confess it; but Indonesians would call me a “bookflea,” and people like me are known as “read-rats” in Germany, “reading horses” in Denmark, and “ink drinkers” in France.  Bring it on!  Reading has enlivened and broadened my life immeasurably, and I closely identify with Henrietta, the little avid reader girl in the Macanudo comic strip by Argentinian, Liniers, that’s in our Sunday paper.  In a recent example, the first panel shows Henrietta, hands on hips, surveying a large, well-used bookcase.  In the second panel she’s lying on a couch with her cat Fellini and staring into space. the third shows her returning to the case and selecting a book, and in the final panel she’s back on the couch with her book and says to Fellini, “Isn’t it weird that a couch becomes much more comfortable when you lie down with a book?”

            Sadly, many kids grow up without reading for pleasure, as related in a new Pew Research report, “Among Many U.S. Children, Reading for Fun Has Become Less Common, Federal Data Shows.”  It begins, “The shares of American 9- and 13-year-olds who say they read for fun on an almost daily basis have dropped from nearly a decade ago and are at the lowest levels since at least the mid-1980s … Among both age groups, the percentages who said in the 2019-20 school year that they “read for fun on [their] own time almost every day” were at their lowest points since the question was first asked in 1984, according to the survey, which was fielded among U.S. public and private school students before the COVID-19 outbreak. It is unclear whether the pandemic may have changed these patterns.”  This was true across races, ethnicities, and public and private schools.

            The study showed the same large gap that’s existed for decades between 9-year-old children who read for pleasure daily (whose percentage dropped from 53 to 42) and 13-year-olds (35 percent dropped to 17).  A majority of American boys and many girls stop pleasure reading during grades 3 and 4.  That’s why the Guys Read Gals Read program created right here in Fairbanks focuses on introducing that age group to fresh, engaging books that are heavily illustrated and donating multiple copies of the books to their school libraries.  Guys Read Gals Read is entering its 17th year providing fun, engaging books in every public elementary school library in our school district, and everyone involved – teachers, librarians, principals, and the students – know it works.

            Maya Angelou said “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.”  It’s well proven that pleasure readers do better in school, work, and life, but most kids don’t grow up with parents who read to them and to themselves, like mine did.  Speaking of “any book” that sparks the reading habit, part of mine came from reading my dad’s magazines, particularly the now defunct “True: The Men’s Magazine.”  Wikipedia’s “True” article said  “High adventure, sports profiles and dramatic conflicts were highlighted in articles such as “Living and Working at Nine Fathoms” by Ed Batutis, “Search for the Perfect Beer” by Bob McCabe and the uncredited “How to Start Your Own Hunting-Fishing Lodge.” In addition to pictorials (“Iceland, Unexpected Eden” by Lawrence Fried) and humor pieces (“The Most Unforgettable Sonofabitch I Ever Knew” by Robert Ruark), there were columns, miscellaneous features,” and, my favorite, cartoons. 

            Many of these cartoons alluded to things beyond my tender years, but one cartoonist, Virgil Partch, stood apart for his wacky surrealism.  Until the eminent local cartoonist Jamie Smith pointed it out, I had no idea that Partch was born in Alaska, on St. Paul Island in 1916.

I knew him only by his “VIP” signature and his strange interpretations of grown-up life.  One cartoon, for example, featured a man raking leaves and talking to a nude woman (shown from the rear); as he bends toward his leaf pile he asks, “Sure you just want one?”  Another showed two cowboys lurking with guns drawn behind a big rock watching an Indian man and woman kissing; one cowboy says, “Hold it, Ed.  I think they’re friendly.”  VIP provided clues to the mysterious adult world ahead of me in an engaging, nonthreatening manner.

            As the often banned, and highly amusing children’s author, Roald Dahl, said “If my books can help children become readers, then I feel I have accomplished something important.”   

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