Pharyngula

Remembrances of books past

Our university library is having a book sale today, one of those unfortunate but necessary events where they purge old or duplicate items from the collections to make room for new books, and I had to make a quick browse. What did I discover but an old children’s book that startled me with fearful and powerful remembrances — this is a book that I checked out from the Kent Public Library when I was ten years old.

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That’s the Golden Guide to Mammals by Herbert S. Zim and Donald F. Hoffmeister, copyright 1955. It features “218 ANIMALS IN FULL COLOR”, with maps of their distribution and short descriptions of their habitat and life histories. I remember reading that from cover to cover, practically memorizing it, and going on long walks out into the fields and forests around my home, looking for the elusive Boreal Red-Backed Vole or the dens of the Hoary Bat, or using it to try to identify the shredded carcasses of road kill.

Now with hindsight I realize it’s a rather awful little book, simultaneously too thin on information for each species to be really useful, and far too limited in breadth to be helpful in actually appreciating diversity, but I have to appreciate it for being an early provocateur, telling me that there was more to the life around me than people, my dog, and the lettuces and corn growing in the nearby fields. So thank you Drs Zim and Hoffmeister! I had to buy the rather ragged copy on sale at the library today as a nod to my early years.

I also had to buy it as an act of expiation. I sinned in my youth, and it curiously still nags at me. I checked the book out of the library when I was 10, and I didn’t return it. I kept it hidden away in my bedroom for a long, long time, and it was small enough to fit in my pocket when I went out, so I just…kinda…kept it. The library sent out all kinds of late notices and my parents kept nagging me to find the damned overdue book, while I just willfully pretended I didn’t know where it was, and they eventually had to just pay to replace it (so I’m pretty sure the Library Police aren’t still trying to hunt me down). I was so bad.

When I look back on my childhood and recollect the naughty things I did, I have to say that my appropriation of that shallow little book is at the top of my list of criminal acts, and I still do feel a bit guilty about it. But now I have my very own copy, openly and rightfully paid for! It’s not as if I’ll ever actually use it, but it’s sweet how holding it now brings me back to the edges of old ponds, hiking the steep flanks on the west side of the Green River Valley, wandering half-lost through silent forests, and that time I climbed up the side of an abandoned gravel pit to startle a grouse at the top who almost sent me plummeting backwards to my likely death when he puffed up and flew right at me.

Which led me to check out the Golden Guide to Birds, which was another story…