Red Booth Notes: The Great Books
After our house had been shovelled out, I walked the quarter-mile or so from our home in Brentwood, New Hampshire, over to the Mary E. Bartlett Memorial Library to have a look at the books set out in the entryway of the former one-room schoolhouse. I was always drawn to the library’s perpetual book sale. For a quarter, often less, I could buy a used book. To me, they were treasures.
I was twelve, and over the past year, I’d gotten in the habit of spending most of my allowance, or whatever money I earned mowing lawns, on books I found there. Every couple of weeks, more books went home with me.
When I arrived on that winter’s day, I could see that the library hadn’t been ploughed out yet. I took the shovel from the just inside the library door and began shovelling out its semi-circular driveway. It took me a couple of hours. After I had put the shovel back, I went inside to have a look at the books. It was there that I saw them on the top shelf: the better part of a complete set of The Harvard Classics—about thirty-five books in all.
I can still see their navy blue cloth bindings with the white lettering on their spines. It seemed like all of the authors I was beginning to encounter in my classes were there—Shakespeare, Milton, and all the rest. I had ten dollars in my pocket; enough money, I thought, to buy them.
I went in and told Mrs. Corbett, the librarian, what I had in mind. She looked thoughtful for a moment and smiled. “Young man,” she said, “you just spent two hours shovelling that driveway. You take as many books home with you as you like.”
The memory of that thoughtful gesture, and her kind, seventy-something face has stayed with me through the years. She and her husband had grown up on farms in the days when so many farms in New England were well stocked with books against the long winter nights. Her husband, I recall, had a particular fondness for Zane Grey, and he told me how he had read all of Grey’s books “when I was your age.” Their enthusiasm for books, and their pleasure in recommending favourites, fostered my growing love of reading.
It took a couple of trips for me to get all those Harvard Classics home. But how I liked the look of them on the bookshelf my grandfather had built for me—the bookshelf that still sits in my study.
All of them, my grandfather—Mrs. Corbett and her husband—are gone now. But I think of them often, and of that wonderful, unexpected gift. Writing this post seems a small return for all that they gave me. But I honour their memory, and all the journeys of the mind they led me to. Gratias maximas tibi ago—thank you very much.