I have been careful with the books I’m choosing to read on my commutes to work by bus. My bus books are lighter in weight, but also absorbing. Two were a pair I’d read already, but one of them I’d read repeatedly since buying my own copy, and its sequel, “The Haunted Bookshop,” I hadn’t re-read in years. I’d been meaning to ask my dad to borrow his copy. I didn’t need to; I inherited it.
But this is Saturday, and I am trying to establish more routine all over my life, even in the freedom of Saturday morning. So this morning, I didn’t want to go on with the book I loved during yesterday’s commute. (It’s one of Dad’s, “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. Watch this space for a review.) I want to save it to look forward to on Monday morning’s ride. So I put aside “Longitude,” even though I’m enjoying it and seeing why I remember Dad enjoying it. I needed something else instead.
The next volume in my pile — or is it a line? — of books to be read was a favorite, “Summer of the Red Wolf” by Morris L. West. It’s a travel book, so I was thinking of it as a bus book, but it’s also about a man adventuring, going to the Western Isles of Scotland. I re-discovered it on errand bus trips today. (It’s a bus book size, after all.) From its familiar first sentence, “Suddenly I was sick of the savagery of the world,” things got unfamiliar quickly. I identified with the narrator easily, though, when he was advised to go to “a place of unknowing.” For this “Mediterranean man,” this was Scotland, even though he was advised by a Scottish friend.
I realized by the end of the Prelude (not Prologue) that the story quickly became unfamiliar because of my little test with it: I pick it up and see whether I agree with the first sentence. I don’t read it until I agree; I read it when I need it. So things are unfamiliar in the story right away, even though I know at least one section is coming that I could recite right now (if I weren’t typing this in the library, anyway).
This copy of “Summer of the Red Wolf” was a gift to Dad. It was his favorite single book, although there are some omnibus copies that might have competed for the all-around title. I have those, too. It’s a hardback in bigger type than a paperback copy that a dear friend gave me, which is getting old enough to be my home copy.
But this isn’t the whole difference between reading “Longitude” for the first time and reading “Summer of the Red Wolf” for the umpteenth.
Both are Sustaining Books. Both belonged to Dad. But they’re different ways to remember him, to be comforted by memories. “Longitude” is a lesson in the history of science, an example of Dad’s friend’s saying that history is a method, not a subject. It’s a joy to get to read something as if still learning from him. “Summer of the Red Wolf,” on the other hand, is a wonderful story, a way to sink into the story itself in the way that Dad would do, sitting in his armchair and thinking his way off to his beloved Scotland. It’s a way to remember our own trip to Scotland as a family, clear back in 1976, and some of the adventures on the roads of the book bring that back almost too vividly.
But the character called “the Red Wolf,” a human, takes care of the narrator — called the seannachie, or story-teller. That’s part of why it’s such a powerful thing to be holding a copy that was Dad’s.
I’m not sure what the rest of the reason is yet; I’m only in Chapter 2.
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Filed under: Sustaining Books