Today, as I was showing a rent-house of mine to a potential tenant I noticed and then pointed out the built-in mission-style, glass-fronted bookcases on either side of the fireplace. I mentioned that those bookcases—built by my paternal grandparents and used by them as well as by my father and my Uncle Walter—were the birthplace of my lifelong fascination with books, with reading. Not only the information in the books but the books themselves—their feel, their look, their smell, and their heft. Once I realized that books were the keys to many kingdoms, they soon held me in their sway and became, over time, as real to me as my schoolmates and, usually, were much better company.
In my mind’s eye I can still see as in a well-loved photo in a family album the dramatic illustrations in a huge, well-worn volume on “natural history” that drew my attention well before I was ten. In particular, I was enthralled by the illustrations of a fearsome, thick-bodied sea creature that looked, except for its lack of a smile, a lot like the friendly monsters drawn much later by Maurice Sendak for his justifiably famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. I also loved the Kraken, a colossal squid that was said to rise from the deep during storms to grasp in its python-like tentacles the top-masts of sailing ships and drag them and their crew to a watery grave. But my favorite was the Gorilla, which–to give you an idea of the age of the book, and of me–was the star of a chapter entitled, “The Gorilla: Does He Exist?”
My grandparents’ bookcases also contained many novels, and I cut my teeth on the perfervid prose of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of the widely popular character Tarzan of the Apes. Nor did I only read Burroughs’ Tarzan series; I was equally attracted to the derring-do of his character John Carter of Mars and of Carter’s immense Martian comrade Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark; not to mention Carter’s loyal, eight-legged guard-dog, Woola, the name I gave my all-time favorite dog, herself a valiant Mastiff, albeit one with only four legs. All of these characters—and most of the animals, such as Tarzan’s pal Tantor the elephant, his gorilla family, and Tars Tarkas’ sturdy thoat—were physically powerful; and the effect they had on my own formative imagination no doubt played some part in my early attraction to “strength and how to obtain it,” as William Blaikie once put it.
My grandparents used to say that when I read a book sitting on their couch the only way they could tell I hadn’t passed either out or on was that I’d occasionally blink or turn a page. When I was a boy the terms Hyperactivity Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, or Bi-polar weren’t yet in use, but had they been they’d have never been applied to me. I was said by my family to be almost unsettlingly still when I had a good book in my hands. Lately I’ve been amused while sitting in my new office at The Stark Center reading—or even typing on my computer—when the motion-activated lights in the office suddenly turn off with me in the room. And stay off.
But who knows what draws a person to books and what suits him or her to the act of reading? But whatever it is, Jan has it too, and her mother has told me that as a girl Jan often read a hundred books from the public library during a normal summer vacation. Even now, we each keep one or two novels or non-fiction books going and we trade books and argue about them. People who’ve visited the Todd-McLean Collection over the years and seen our many volumes usually laugh out loud when they come to our home and see our walls filled with book-bulged cases. So perhaps it’s in the natural order of things for us to have gravitated to each other and to the accumulation of books and magazines devoted to the field in which we’ve made our living and our lives.
We often talk about how lucky we feel—how blessed—to have found our way to a place in which we’re surrounded by tens of thousands of books and magazines dealing with an area of study which has fascinated us both for as long as we can remember. We know that not many people get to do more or less what they like, and we’re truly grateful for the perfect storm of happy circumstances which has allowed us to make a home for our books and other physical culture materials and to spend most of our time in that home ourselves. Our gratitude inspires us to try to make the most of our situation and to do our best to leave behind a robust research library and museum that will live well beyond us and continue to serve those who want to explore the world of physical culture.
Some people—and those people might actually be correct—hold the opinion that it’s pointless to take the distant future seriously since life is ultimately trivial and even meaningless. One such person said awhile back that we’re all just “fancy monkeys clinging to a second-rate planet orbiting a dying star.” Well. I think it’s beyond argument that a person who really believed that wouldn’t spend her/his life collecting and caring for books, magazines, and related materials about self-improvement, the efficacy of hard work, and the physical culture life with the aim of preserving these materials for future generations of iron gamers. In any case, such a person can back a whole tree-full of fancy monkeys for all I care; I’ve bet my life, Jan’s bet hers, and we’ve bet ours on Woola, on Tantor, on each other.