Pick Your Story (Carefully) at the Library

by Bill Peak

When I was a boy, I used to spend weekends out at my grandparents' house in the country. One summer night, after Grandmother and Grandfather had gone to bed, I pulled a ski mask down over my face and walked out into the heavy woods that skirted their property. I was twelve years old. It was a moonless, hot, Kentucky night. I was so afraid I could feel (and thought I could hear) my heart beating in my chest. Still I soldiered on, tripping over unseen obstacles, blundering into trees, the skin of my forehead and cheeks growing miserably hot and itchy beneath the wool of that ski mask.

More by blind luck than anything else, I eventually found my way through the woods to the house of my grandparents' nearest neighbors. The forest grew close to the Bookers' place and I was able to get within twenty feet of the house while staying more or less hidden by the trees. The family, I quickly discovered, was still awake. I could see them through the window in their den watching television. For a while I just stood there, watching the Bookers watching Dinah Shore, then, a little sheepishly, I turned and began to stumble back the way I'd come. When, finally, I got home, I was covered with mosquito bites and spider web, there was a bad rash developing on my face, and I was immensely happy. Though no one else knew it, James Bond had just made a secret nighttime foray through the woods of Glenview, Kentucky.

That dark, purblind night took place half a century ago. I haven't thought about it in years. Then, this past March, in preparation for a book discussion I was hosting at the library, I began to re-read Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry has always worked a sort of magic on me. Whenever I am reading one of his novels or short stories I find myself growing more patient with my life, more patient with the people around me. I become less prone to self-importance, more prone—I hope—to humility. Thanks to Berry, I am a better man.

Thanks to Ian Fleming, I was a fool. That nighttime march through the woods took place in Kentucky in 1963. If Mr. Booker had looked out his window and seen a dark figure hiding among the trees at the rear of his house with a ski mask pulled down over his face, not a jury in America would have blamed him for shooting me dead. I wouldn't have blamed him. I get a kick out of all these folks who claim that books and movies don't affect people, that they're just entertainment. Of course they affect people. That is what we humans do, we tell ourselves stories, we say “I am a doctor” or “I am a father” or “I am a big tough guy,” and then we go out and try to live accordingly. Our stories guide and determine our every action.

So by all means go to the library and read, read as much as you can; it will enrich and inform your life. But if there's one thing I've learned by the age of sixty-two, it's that it's important to pick your reading material carefully. The stories books tell, the atmosphere they create, the sense of scale and ethics, can sneak up on you and—for better or worse—become your own.