Over the last few fortnights I have offered up blog entries that have explored a number of subjects which I felt thoughtful, and hopefully, interesting for you to ponder. Looking back at the menu of topics I covered – and rereading the narratives – though, it occurred to me that at best, the array may have become a tad ponderous and at worst, my musings may have appeared to some as sermonizing.
While the feedback I have gotten from many of you remains positive and supportive, admittedly, some of my reflections of late have been somber, meditative and sententious. Irish author, Oscar Wilde, wrote in his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin.” Heeding the esteemed author’s warning then, I think now is the perfect juncture to deviate from my current course and offer up something light, fun and, I trust, interesting.
Another renowned Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, bandied that “Happy is the man who is living by his hobby.” I fully agree with the legendary polemicist’s contention as this has certainly been the case in my life. My hobbies and interests have brought both enjoyment and purpose. I also concur with an observation from Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who noted “Dime a qué le prestas atención y te diré quién eres.” (“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”)
One step into my home, or in particular, my home office, will provide the visitor with a panoramic glimpse into my life; a bird’s-eye view into who I am and what I like. Contemporary philosopher and author, Kilroy J. Oldster, offered in his book, “Dead Toad Scrolls”, “The items people own reveal something about the owners. As a people, we assign a value meaning not only to the things that we presently possess, but also to the items destined for one generation to hand down to the next generation.” You will get this tiptoeing into my office.
I started collecting things early in life. A fact my Mom can confirm. As a kid, I hoarded stamps, Elvis records, coins, and of course, the adolescent collector’s pièce de ré·sis·tance, trading cards, with an unquenchable thirst. With the exception of stamps, this affinity to collect stuck with me through the early years and is just as much part of my life today as when I was flipping baseball cards against Saint John of the Cross’s outside walls with my grade school cronies during recess.
Though as an adult, the scope of my “affliction” ( my wife’s well intended but still, snarky descriptor, not mine) has broadened (much to my better half’s chagrin) and now books – thousands – G.I. Joes – hey, I am a soldier after all – and motorcycles – a dozen or so – are included in my stockpile of cool things I just need to have. Without doubt, my hobbies and the things that I collect with unconstrained gusto are more a reflection of me than the mug shot gracing my current Military Retiree ID card.
While I think a 2,000 word tractate about any of these keepsakes would be interesting to you, – a roll of my wife’s baby blues here – the focus of this week’s missive is books. More specifically, I want to discuss a fascinating sidebar my affinity for reading and books has rewarded me with over the last decade.
Over a hundred years ago, French novelist and critic, Marcel Proust, wrote “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” That was true for me as a kid and it is even more bona fide today. I noted in an earlier blog entry – “To Read or Not to Read” – http://www.thesecond50life.com/to-read-or-not-to-read-that-is-the-question/ – I had read over 9,500 books in my lifetime. What I did not mention though, is my home library includes over 4,000 books; almost all hardback 1st editions and most of them signed by the author.
Very few of my autographed books were signed, however, when I added them to my collection. The inscriptions came later after tracking down respective authors thru a process of internet sleuthing Sherlock Holmes himself would have admired. It is this latter detail I want to share with you today. A story of how a budding proclivity to track down authors morphed into a passion that in turn led me on a journey in which I corresponded with, met and in some cases, befriended, a group of the most successful authors of fiction and non-fiction in contemporary times.
I remember the very first email I sent to an author seeking their scribe on a book plate for my copy of their manuscript. The year was 2003. I approached the solicitation with a pronounced degree of trepidation fearing the author would view my request as an intrusion. My angst proved unfounded as the author in question, Steve Berry, was more honored I asked than I was, he considered my request. The book in question, “The Amber Room”, was his first, and he was so excited I asked for his autograph, he sent me an ACTUAL PAGE FROM THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT signed for posterity. Since then, over 20 million of Steve’s books have been sold. All of Steve’s subsequent 14 “New York Times” best sellers – signed of course – are housed in my library while the manuscript is on my wall.
Another author I contacted, Thomas Mullen, treated my request with equal deference. As I found out, the book in question, “The Last Town on Earth” was his first but more amazingly, I proved to be the initial reader to ever contact him. A fact he reminded me of when his next novel appeared and I again, hit him up for a book plate signing. This interaction led to me subsequently serving as a technical advisor for his book “The Revisionists.”
In 2007, while still in the Army and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, I read the latest book from “Black Hawk Down” author, Mark Bowden, “Guests of the Ayatollah.” I was so mesmerized by his narrative on the 1979-1980 Iran Hostage Crisis I tracked him down and asked for an autograph for my book. Ever gracious, he not only provided me with his “John Hancock”, he gave me contact info for many of the former hostages. With Mark’s help, I was able to get the autographs of 21 of them; several who have sadly passed away since then. In a very surprising side note, I also found out that Mark lives about five miles from my parents in a bucolic area of Pennsylvania.
In 2009, again, still in the Army, I was in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and contacted author, Ace Atkins, who had written a series of historical crime novels. In the flow of our email discourse, Ace mentioned his desire to start a fictional series based on an Army Ranger returning home after a number of deployments. The initial book, aptly titled “The Ranger” was an immediate success and has since spawned six sequels.
Long story short, I ended up providing technical assistance to Ace’s efforts and was rewarded with a very nice acknowledgement in the book. Even cooler, in the first couple of books in the series I actually appear in name – Colonel George Reynolds – briefly as a character. A simple but very meaningful homage. Best of all, however, my simple autograph request has blossomed into a wonderful and lasting friendship with an amazing author and even better person.
In 2011, again back in Afghanistan, this time as a Department of Defense civilian, a request for an author book plate signing led once more to me being asked to serve as technical advisor on a book. Lori Armstrong solicited my help on a few Iraq War flashback scenes she was trying to draft for her book “Mercy Kills.” I obliged – what bibliophile wouldn’t???? – and Lori acknowledged my support with a very nice shout out in the book. In a more meaningful turn of events, I drafted out my own version of the entire flashback scene and Lori used my prose – two full pages – almost verbatim in the final manuscript. For me, the ultimate compliment.
By far, one of the most exciting by-products of my book collecting was a personal invitation from famed reporter/author, Bob Woodward, for an interview. I was returning from Iraq in 2007 and Bob was researching his book, “The War Within”, the fourth and final volume of his epic analysis of President George W. Bush’s presidency. He graciously met me at his Washington, DC home and spent two hours talking with me about the war in Iraq. That nothing I said that day ended up in his book never dampened the pride I felt being interviewed by someone I have admired since I was a young adult. Again, an opportunity presented as a result of a hobby and a penchant for collecting.
I think I could continue this stream of consciousness forever but I believe now is a good time to bring the curtain down on this mini-magnum opus. Serbian poet and philosopher, Dejan Stojanović, opined “To write good poems is the secret of brevity.” I believe the same holds true for blog entries. (Although at over 1700 words I believe I have stretched the limits of that edict.) My objective today was not to come across as a braggart and I hope I achieved that goal. Instead, I wanted to share with you my joy of collecting and the important benefits I have reaped from this passion. In that regard, I hope I hit my mark
As a kid, collecting provided me an outlet to expand my interests and occupy my time. Looking back, I am convinced the hobbies I embraced provided me with alternatives that perhaps allowed me to avoid trouble and bad experiences others around me found inescapable. As an adult, collecting things gives me diversion, gratification and a sense of purpose. To my ever tolerant wife, sorry, sweetie, I do not see this changing in the Second Fifty.
This entry is dedicated to my wife who encouraged to write something a little more personal. She is proof positive that someone’s staunchest supporter can also be their most useful critic.
Major kudos to anyone who realized I lifted the title of this blog entry from the song “The Butterfly Collector” by the 1990s alternative rock band, Garbage.