Opening Books

My mother schooled me in the art of opening new books when I was very young. I never heard this referred to anywhere else in my lifelong relationship with books until it popped up in my Facebook feed a few days ago. Thank you, writer friend Del Sheree Gladden.

This brings back memories of the school book fairs at The Lane School in my hometown where I was allowed to pick out two or three books to take home. When the books came home, Mom sat down with me and showed me how to “open the book.”

We read many of these books together, a chapter at a time, usually before an afternoon nap or bedtime. I can hear Mom’s voice reading me the stories of Winnie the Pooh and his Expotitions with friends, magical tales from Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, and adventures with Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows.

This was the message–books are treasures to be respected, protected, and loved. I haven’t opened a new hardback book in this way in a long time, but the lesson that opened my relationship with books stays with me.

The Story of a Book

“In Victoria, Texas, 1857, a baby was born. From the noise he made, it sounded more like a panther. Long John Dunn raised hell for a long time after, in one form or another.” How can you not love a book that opens like this?

Behold an old, beat-up looking book.
Long John Dunn of Taos, by Max Evans. Published 1959,by Western Lore Press of Los Angeles, California. Great West and Indian Series XV.

I heard about Max Evans from other New Mexican writers. They spoke of him as a classic writer of the Old West, an actual cowboy and chronicler of a past lifestyle. I was reintroduced to Evans when our local PBS station, KNME in Albuquerque, produced a documentary, Ol’ Max Evans,the First Thousand Years in 2020. He was an intriguing character and a good writer, two attributes that made me want to find out more about him.

I went in search of his books. At that time, my local library didn’t have any. I began the online search–all of the books were out of print. I broadened the search to used bookstores. A surprising number of bookstore people in both New Mexico and Arizona had not even heard of Max Evans.

Finally, I found this book in Santa Fe, at an off-the-beaten track used bookstore, Big Star Books & Music on Garfield. It is great fun to read. It is also politically incorrect by standards of our century. But of course, this writer, his subject, and the book are not of this century.

60 year book trail

The markings and the old fashioned library card pocket inside the front cover hint at the story of this book. I can see it was owned by someone whose name is blacked out. At some point, the Christian County Library in Ozark, Missouri, acquired this volume, and some diligent librarian added the birth and death dates of Long John Dunn in pencil. Somewhere between that library and the bookstore in Santa Fe, it was pulled from the shelf and rudely stamped WITHDRAWN. I am left to imagine all the places it journeyed and who read it before I found it with the pencil marking “$7.50 as is” on this same page.

So in addition to the stories of Max Evans, and Long John Dunn, I am gifted with the story of the book itself.

I end on the happy note that University of New Mexico Press has brought two of Max Evans’ books back to print. I can hope that more will follow, although these new editions won’t bring you the extra stories I have found in my 1959 edition.

The Poem–Produce, Far Aisle

“Do that somewhere else,”

            said the prune lipped

                        banana nosed

                        apricot eared

                        tomato headed high school librarian

when she caught me lingering over Brave New World

So many places to stop

            squeeze the covers

            sniff the ends

            look for brown spots

            cobwebs and signs of spoilage

Delicious and ripe fruits

So close to my nose and near sighted eyes

It was her mission to keep me away from tantalizing words

            revolutionary black marks on onion white pages

            and artichokian abstractions

I plucked the pages, grape by grape, illegally

            and popped them into my mouth

            hiding behind the stacks of fresh and purple prose

When she turned to restack the encyclopedia display

            I dashed out the back door

            Dickinson and Twain in hand

            dropping strawberry stems as I fled