Earlier this month, I was invited to take part in an event at the main branch of the Orange County Library called The Storyteller's Gift, where local authors discussed important books they'd received as gifts. This was my essay:
My grandfather Sid loved to read. His house was of full of books they'd spilled out to shelves on the front porch, where paperbacks soaked in the humidity of southern summers. There was no logic to the organization. Cookbooks would be mixed in with histories and random single volumes from encyclopedias. The books were purchased in bulk at flea markets and thrift stores, an eclectic collection of dime store romances, lurid non-fiction, and pulp detective tales. National Geographics accumulated in every corner, as well as Watchtower magazines, and numerous children’s books filled with Bible stories.
My grandfather never went to college. He’d grown up poor in coal mining country and worked most of his life in a factory. Reading helped him find a larger world beyond Appalachia. None of his children inherited his love of reading. I never saw my father with a book in hand, only the occasional woodworking magazine. The houses of my aunts and uncles had a book or two, but none showed an inclination toward building a library as grand as their father’s.
Then I came along. I was a kid more interested in books than toys. When I went to his house, I risked life and limb digging out National Geographics from tottering stacks taller than I was. The first science fiction anthology I ever read was pried from one of his porch shelves. I loved all the books about ancient astronauts and Bigfoot and alien abductions.
If I ever had a relative who should have given me a book for Christmas, it was my grandfather. But, he was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t celebrate holidays. While he was generous in letting me take home books I found on is porch, I can’t recall him ever giving me a book as a gift.
Like a lot of bookworms, he was a quiet person. Our only conversation I recall was him telling me how one day cars would run on hydrogen and we’d fill up our tanks with water.
He died when I was eleven. My grandmother survived him by over thirty years. The collection of books never changed after he passed away. They just kept rotting on the front porch, or collecting cobwebs in their stacks along the walls. She never got rid of the books, but never read anything other than the Watchtowers. For three decades, I never saw any new books show up on the shelves.
When she passed away a few years ago, her children had the task of emptying out the house. Silverfish and mold had ravaged the books on the porch. Cheap paper and decades of southern heat had reduced the books inside to fragile yellow pages that fell apart as you turned them.
I never went to her house after her funeral. It was the task of my aunts to settle her estate. I was told that the books had been hauled off to the dump, with a few of the more intact ones going to Goodwill. They’d save me a National Geographic from March of the year I was born. I was happy to have it, thinking this was the only link I’d ever have to that childhood library.
Two years ago, I went to my mother’s house the weekend before Christmas. I don’t celebrate the holiday myself, but my Mother and siblings do. I attend seasonal events with the firm rule that I don’t take part in gift exchanges.
My mother was almost apologetic when she came out of the back bedroom with a cardboard box for me. It wasn’t wrapped. It was just a bunch of random objects, all of them old. There was an ancient Kodak camera, an old conch shell, a few yellowed photos, a frozen watch. And, at the bottom of the box, books.
She’d saved these things while helping clean out my grandmother’s house and thought I might want them. My grandfather had one bookshelf in a back bedroom that had glass doors, so that the books inside had been in decent condition. She’d saved me a few science fiction and adventure novels.
I dug through the box and discovered that my grandfather had been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were a couple of Barsoom novels and a few Tarzan books, including a reasonably intact hardcover of Tarzan of the Apes.
I flipped to the copyright page. A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
I was no expert, but 1914 had to be darn close to the date Tarzan was first published.
I pulled out my phone.
Tarzan was originally published by A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914. First editions were worth $65,000, with dust jackets; jacketless editions like the one I held went for a mere $3000. Everything about my book matched the pictures on the internet, save for one small detail: While the copyright page listed the publisher as McClurg, the spine was stamped A. C. Burt.
Further research revealed the truth. A. C. Burt had reprinted the Tarzan books in the U.S. using the original British printing plates, including the copyright page. In perfect condition, they might be worth $50.
It didn’t matter. If it had been a first edition, I couldn’t imagine selling it. Flipping through the pages, the smell that washed over me was the exact scent of my grandfather’s porch. Even now, it takes me back to childhood.
This year, I finally read Tarzan. To say the novel hasn’t aged well is an understatement. The style is lurid. The plot is built on one implausible coincidence after another. There’s cringe-inducing racism. Tarzan, an abandoned white baby in a dark jungle, rises above the savage natives due to his superior intellect and fine breeding.
Toward the end of the book, the plot strains to tick the boxes of every imaginable adventure scenario, as Tarzan comes to America and races a car through a forest fire to rescue Jane and… I’m not making that up. Tarzan knew how to drive, because, why not? At this point, I was enjoying the book as an unintentional farce.
I reached the final scene, knowing that Tarzan and Jane confess their undying love and go back to the jungle… only that’s not how the book ends at all. In defiance of every Hollywood adaptation, after crossing an ocean to find Jane, Tarzan realizes that, if he tells her he loves her, she’ll come back to Africa. But he also realizes she’ll never fit in there, any more than he belongs in the civilized world. The book closes with a perfect final sentence, one of the most satisfying closing lines I’ve ever read, as Tarzan throws away his chance of happiness in order to ensure Jane will have a better life. In an instant, a novel I hadn’t liked very much became a classic I wanted to talk with people about.
But who could I talk to? I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed old pulp novels.
Except, of course, I did. He was gone now, but the fact he had a whole collection of Tarzan books told me a lot about his reading tastes. For the first time, I understood that it wasn’t just chance I’d found science fiction on my grandfather’s porch, or books about UFO’s piled under his coffee table. The books he’d chosen to preserve in his glass case were the ancestors of the books I now write.
It took me almost four decades to figure out that my grandfather had been a nerd. He’d lived in rural Virginia with no one around who shared his geeky interests. He didn’t talk much, but I bet he wanted to talk about those books.
I hope, by reading his books now, I’m doing my part to carry on the conversation.