Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Books and Compliments

The stacks of books around my desk led to a conclusion the Beautiful Wife supported: build more book shelves. I bought lumber, borrowed tools from sons and sons-in-law (they have the latest equipment), and got to work. I’m waiting now for the paint to dry, excited to arrange my books.

Like many, I have a lifelong love affair with books. My earliest reading memory is “Robinson Crusoe.” The book defined the English novel and has been translated to more languages than any except another favorite, the Bible. “Robinson Crusoe” had a later influence: I wrote my high school senior term paper on the author, Daniel Defoe. My English teacher’s compliment on the paper is still remembered.

I was an immature high school freshman, a skinny, shy kid disinterested in school. My saving discovery was the school library. Ignoring textbooks, I embraced fiction. My grades didn’t please my parents but I read an impressive number of books, sometimes three a day. Jack London, from nearby San Francisco, was a favorite. Though best known for “The Call of the Wild,” I preferred “The Sea-Wolf.” It told of a writer, a puny sort of man, shanghaied to crew on a ship under a hard captain. The writer, toughened by surviving many hardships, returns a new man, and gets the beautiful girl he saved on the voyage. You can understand how this might appeal to a freshman too shy to talk to girls.

Over the years my interest moved from fictional stories to books about reality, especially well-researched books that take a hard look at accepted truths. David Halberstam is one of my favorite authors. His detailed examination of how smart people do dumb things in “The Best and The Brightest” is a classic. I’ve visited the Bay Area intersection where he tragically died in a car accident.

Herman Wouk is another favorite; I loved his young-woman-coming-of-age book, “Marjorie Morningstar,” when I was in that stage. I’ve been reading Wouk’s brief memoir, “Sailor and Fiddler,” an account of his life journey through deepening religiosity. His wife, not given to compliments, had stopped an earlier autobiography by noting, “You’re not that interesting a person.” But in his memoir, Wouk savors a rare compliment after wrangling her an extra seat on a long plane trip, “You can do anything.”

The other day, examining my bookshelf project, the BW graced me with that same compliment, “You can do anything.” It’s not quite true, but as with Herman Wouk, the words touched a nerve. I have a project to write a family story, about my ancestors coming to America. They were moved by their faith, immigrating as Pilgrims, Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mormons. It’s an important story, this faith-driven migration, worthy of saving for posterity. I won’t write much about myself, like Wouk, I’m not than interesting a person. But I will recall those kind words from the BW, “You can do anything.” Compliments, like books, are one of life’s blessings—both enrich our lives. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.”  Email:  [email protected]

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