The Light of Knowledge

American Dreamer

February is Library Lovers Month. I celebrated it by reading “Blue at the Mizzen” the final of 19 novels by Patrick O’Brien that follow the adventures of British Naval captain Jack Aubrey and his naval surgeon and naturalist friend Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars.

I have joined them and together we have explored the West Indies, Peru, Sweden, the Galapagos, the coasts of Africa and all the oceans that connect them.
It was an exhilarating adventure. I started reading the series in 2011 after pulling the first novel in the series “Master and Commander” off a shelf at the Salt Lake Library.

I love libraries, I love bookstores, I love bookmobiles. I love stories. My idea of heaven is my own private library that contains every book ever written and all eternity to read them.

My celestial library would have a fireplace, a skylight, and, of course, really good coffee.  It would be lighted with warm, orange candlelight, and it would be constructed with dark, aromatic woods. Thoreau, Proulx, Oliver, Pirsig, Zymborska, O’Brien, Asimov, Bradbury, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy would stop by for cocktails in the evening. And Dorothy Parker to keep the conversation moving.  

Outside my celestial library I’d find an endless series of hiking trails. Books, trails and conversations with intelligent people to share them with: heaven.
The frescoes that adorned the ceiling of my celestial library would be painted with scenes from my favorite works of literature: Romeo climbing the vines to Juliet’s balcony. Aubrey and Maturin standing at the rail of the Surprise. Odysseus hugging his dog after his long adventure.

And Tarzan teaching himself how to read in his dead parent’s cabin.

My first great scrape with literature happened when I was in the third grade and it happened in the back of the Bookmobile where I found a Tarzan novel. It was Tarzan and the Leopard Men. Book no. 18 in a series of 24 novels, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Don’t give me that nonsense about not judging a book by its cover because that’s exactly why I chose it. The cover was very exciting, showing three men dressed in leopard skins, jumping from the jungle trees to attack Tarzan.

Tarzan novels were your basic pulp-grade, action-driven novels but they were still far above my third-grade reading level.

And let me just add this before moving on: though they were considered “pulp fiction” during the time they were written (1912-1965), Burroughs’ level of writing was superior to a lot of the contemporary novels I’ve read in the last ten years.

It took me a long time to finish that first Tarzan novel, probably six to eight weeks. Whenever I came to a new word I didn’t know I’d stop and look it up. I still remember looking up the word “descend.”

Reading that first Tarzan novel was the first time I experienced being totally engrossed in a book, and entering its world. It was the first time I experienced exploring a foreign world without leaving my chair. And l absolutely loved it! At some point while reading “Tarzan and the Leopard Men” my Light of Knowledge was turned on.

My third-grade teacher, Mr Beale, noticed me struggling my way through that first Tarzan novel and when I finished it he took a minute out of class to point out my accomplishment to the rest of my class. It meant a lot to me. Surely, more than he realized. It was one of the proudest moments of my young life.
When the Bookmobile returned the next Thursday, I turned in “Tarzan and the Leopard Men” then perused the Bookmobile for “Tarzan of the Apes.” While reading “Tarzan and the Leopard Men” I had discovered, at the front of the book, a list of all the Tarzan books in order, which started with “Tarzan of the Apes,” and I wanted to read the series in order.

I didn’t find “Tarzan of the Apes” that day, but l still walked out of our movable library with another Tarzan novel in my hand, my imagination already burning to enter Africa. This book was also a challenge, but after reading the first one I was now familiar with more of the words and spent less time looking up new words.  

I read another two or three Tarzan novels before the school year ended and the Bookmobile stopped coming for the duration of the summer break. I entered the summer break without anything good to read.

But then came a most serendipitous discovery! It was simply one of the greatest discoveries, one of the most thrilling moments, of my entire life.  It felt like a miracle. Even now at age 48 few moments in a life – a life that has been filled with fabulous adventures, daring explorations and momentous discoveries – have lived up to that moment.

My family was on its way home from a summer road trip and we stopped at a mall so my mom could shop. We established a meeting place and time and dispersed with a plan to regroup 90 minutes later.

Sometime during that period I wandered into a bookstore and started wandering among the stacks. Not far back, in the B section (for Burroughs), I came upon two rows of Tarzan novels. They were on the two bottom-most shelves and arranged in order, from no. 1 to no. 24. I remember kneeling there pulling off each book and staring at its incredible cover art, which had been done by either Boris Vallejo or Neal Adams.

Pretty soon the floor around me was surrounded with books. I remember one of the store clerks came by and saw me sitting on the floor surrounded by a fan of Tarzan novels. She started to say something to me – probably something along the lines of, Hey kid clean this mess up – but she must have recognized in my eyes a fellow reader who had just discovered a literature Mother Lode and she just walked away.

I purchased “Tarzan of the Apes” – the first book in the series, on my way out and began reading it on the drive home. It was instantly my favorite book in the series because it was about Tarzan as a child, and as a nine-year-old myself, I found it much more relatable than the other books in which Tarzan is an adult.

The book described how Tarzan’s parents became shipwrecked in Africa, how they built a cabin in the jungle, how they died and how Tarzan came to be raised by apes.  

In chapter seven –titled The Light of Knowledge- Tarzan returned to the tiny cabin his father had built and inside he found books his father had brought with him from England. Like me, Tarzan was drawn to books. Like me he slowly taught himself to read.  

For Tarzan it was a cabin in Africa, for me it was a Bookmobile in Utah.