Works of Consequence at the Library

by Bill Peak

Among those of us that love books, it is a given that we are changed by them. We can list the names of the decisive texts in our lives as easily as we can those of family or friends. But what about the secondary works, the lesser influences that have affected not so much our aims as our aim? I well remember, for instance, the way I reacted when, in the sixth grade, all my buddies developed a sudden and alarming enthusiasm for late model cars and Chubby Checker. It was as if I'd been awakened from a sweet dream by some rude functionary announcing childhood's end, that now, without delay, I must begin upon the onerous task of being a teenager.

For a brief period, not surprisingly, I rebelled. Every day when I got home from school, I'd throw off my shoes and socks, don blue-jeans and an old straw hat, and go out to work hard—Peter Pan-like—at being a boy again. But of course it was already too late. I'd never really dressed like that as a child. Having just read “Tom Sawyer” for the first time, I was simply adopting the image of boyhood I'd so admired in Twain's classic—such affectation being, of course, an early indicator of the onset of adolescence.

Then there was Barbara Tuchman's “The Guns of August.” How, you might ask, could a history of the early days of World War I affect the way of one's life? Well, I happened to read Tuchman's book in my mid-twenties, just as I started writing my first-ever grant application. The planning that went into the warring factions' attacks influenced my own, and that request turned out to be one of the best thought-out I have ever produced. To this day, whenever life throws up a project requiring detailed preparation, I remember Flanders and try, accordingly, to map out my little venture as if lives depended on it.

And now yet another history seems bent upon changing the way I look at things. For me, Theodore Roosevelt has always been the frail child who rose from his sickbed to become a cowboy, win the presidency, break up the trusts, and carry a big stick. But James Bradley, author of the acclaimed “Flags of Our Fathers,” has a different take on my hero. It is Bradley's thesis, as laid out in his new book “The Imperial Cruise,” that Roosevelt's ham-fisted Asian policies eventually led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In other words, if it hadn't been for Teddy, Bradley's father (and mine) would never have had to fight in the Pacific.

Don't you just hate books like that, the ones that take our preconceived notions and turn them on their head? And the next question, of course, is whether or not the new way of looking at things should become your way of looking at things. If you'd like to help me answer that question, check out Bradley's book (359.4 BRAD), read it, and then join me to discuss it at the library March 14 at 6:30 p.m. I look forward to hearing your advice.