Lately, I have been musing about the nature of adventure; it’s my way of surviving a dull, gray, listless and seemingly endless winter. If I can’t have an adventure right now, or something similar to one, I can at least read about others who have.
“she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
– Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway was never known for his humility. The woman to whom Hemingway bowed was Beryl Markham; to describe her as an iconic adventurer is to describe a rose as just another flower. Beryl Markham was many things, all of which she mastered. Writing was but one; her book West with the Night is a masterpiece. A box of fine chocolates, I forced myself to take one bit chapter, one bite, at a time; to bite into it slowly, to move it around my brain carefully so I could fully absorb each sensation, to hold it there as long as possible to extend my enjoyment, then to sit back and marvel at the experience. It is a book to be slowly savoured, not to be devoured.
This post is really a reflection on my growing affection and admiration for Libraries. The word library may not stir a rush of adrenaline to your heart, setting the synapses of your brain on high alert so that the colours are brighter, the sounds clearer, the tastes and smells more pronounced. It should. Libraries are a portal to an infinite supply of adventure.
I grew up in a small town in southern Alberta, Taber, known for agriculture – sugar beets and corn – not ideas. It was however a surprising melting pot of people from other places, farmers, second generation immigrants, my own Welsh coal mining grandfather, various forced relocatees – the chinese, japanese, czechs, hungarians; all bringing their baggage and their cultural uniqueness and, their religions to this small remarkably diverse town.
Taber had a library. It was housed upstairs from the local firehall, close to downtown; although everything in Taber was close to downtown. I like to think looking back that its location was portentous, while the firetrucks below were there to put out fires, the library above was there to start them, to offer books to inflame the minds of readers. There’s a new one now, thankfully bigger, more accessible, more animated, more welcoming.
It worked for me. One of my favorite memories of Taber involves the library. After supper, I would pick up my friend, Rod Adachi; we’d cross the tracks to downtown and head for the library. We’d both wander through the stacks (about 3000 books by then) and choose our full allotment – I think four was the limit. We’d wander home and repeat the process every week. Each week, I had four remarkable adventures, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series stand out. It was inflammatory; I may have left Taber long ago but I never lost my love of books as a gateway to adventure, vicarious adventure but adventure nevertheless.
I did stop going to libraries for many years though, only recently have I rediscovered their magic and their power to inflame my mind. Libraries are, again, tinderboxes lighting my imagination.
I found Beryl Markham at the Joe Fortes branch of the Vancouver Public Library, next to the West End Community Center – a ten minute walk from my home. You can often find me there, my gateway to adventure, along with adventure seekers of all ages, looking for another book by Beryl Markham.
They are magical places. And they’ve expanded, books in abundance, of course, but now in a variety of formats, e-books for your e-reader, audiobooks, big type books – all for the taking, all for free. All it takes is my library card and whatever I choose is mine for the taking – as long as I dutifully return them in three weeks. I can also access movies and music in as many formats as I can imagine – an improved technological dexterity is the only restriction.
My recent adventure in higher education has only enhanced my view of Libraries as gateways – anything ever printed is now digitized and available; books, journals, magazines, news stories, the list is endless. Feeling intimidated? I’ve discovered the solution. They’re called librarians – magical people, worthy of a Hogwarts’ gown and a conical hat. Ask them anything, and they love to be asked; the tougher the request, the puzzle, the more alive they come. One, Baharak, helped me find digital, obscure dust-covered journal articles on an equally obscure 15th century Florentine nun, Sister Plautilla Nelli, the only woman to paint her version of the Last Supper. Now that’s following Alice down a rare rabbit hole to a new world!
Let’s go back to Beryl Markham. West with the Night inflames the imagination. I had the great joy of taking my children, Blair and Kristen and Kristen’s husband Chris, to Africa. We spent some time in places where Markham grew up, a century earlier. Her stories reignite the tingly excitement, the awe, the jaw-drop of wonder that we experienced.
We had seen warthogs from the safety of our land rover. They are not domestic pigs, as geckos are not crocodiles; they are much to be feared. Markham describes the warthog brilliantly: “His eyes are small and lightless and capable of but one expression – suspicion. What he does not understand, he suspects, and what he suspects, he fights.”
That’s just a teaser, her writing is infused with insight, her adventures crackle with risk and energy, each incident enough to anchor a full book.
Beryl Markham was a serial risk-taker, an adventure junkie; as a child – an African hunter, as a teen, a serious, successful thoroughbred race-horse trainer, as a mature woman, an extraordinary aviator, in later life a celebrated author.
Markham certainly lived by her words: “It is no good telling yourself that one day you will wish you had never made that change; it is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”
Great article Bob — I’m encouraging my family, especially grand kids, to pay attention to what you had to say and to make books and libraries part of their lives. It really works for Ben’s boys — they love going to the library in Alexandria and Maxville.
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