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Life Savers from the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Having reached, and now surpassed, my allotted three score and ten, I find myself thinking about how much I have to be thankful for. In addition to a loving wife, our caring community, and good health, one of the many blessings I've received is the gift of reading, the opportunities for vicarious travel it has afforded me, the sense of lives lived (both fictional and historic) in addition to my own, the knowledge, however scant, that has accrued, and yes, one hopes, at least a modicum of end-of-life wisdom. But it has also served, from time to time, as a life saver.

Things have been rather hectic around the McLoud-Peak household of late. First we embarked upon a prolonged and difficult (is it ever easy?) remodeling of our house, then the line from our well to the house sprung a leak and began to flood the lower portion of our property, then our dog Cherokee tore a ligament in her knee and had to undergo costly surgery, and, finally, Melissa suffered a heart attack—all of this over the course of just three short months.

I'm happy to report the house re-make is more or less complete, the line from our well has been repaired, Cherokee is well along the road to full recovery, and Melissa—while still far from out of the woods—is taking all the right steps in cardiac rehab to once more achieve good health. Meanwhile though, trying to cope with all this, yours truly could very easily have been reduced to babbling idiocy.

But for reading.

In December, while the remodeling was still afoot, the well line rupturing, and portions of Melissa's and Cherokee's anatomies plotting catastrophe, Jill Lepore wrote an article for The New Yorker extolling the virtues of an author of spy novels named Mick Herron. I had never heard of Herron, and while I'm not a big fan of spy novels—with the exception of John le Carré's—I have long admired and trusted Lepore's view of things … so I immediately checked out one of Herron's works from the library.

And quickly, and gratefully, lost myself in it, escaping, however briefly, all the fears and concerns then crushing in on me. Many people, including Lepore, have likened Herron to le Carré, and while I find the comparison reasonable—intricate plotting, dialogue full of English backbiting and sting, loads of MI5 politics, and a cast of fascinating characters—there are two prime differences between the authors: (1) Herron, unlike le Carré, will often leave you laughing out-loud, and (2) he will never leave you wondering if he's a closet misogynist.

But I don't like to escape into literature just at bedtime (when I prefer shoot-'em-ups such as Herron's), but also in the morning, when, fresh and alert, I enjoy diving into serious fiction. So I decided to give my mornings over to an old favorite of mine, Graham Swift's Waterland.

As its title would indicate, Waterland is set in a landscape not unlike our own: fields that have to be ditched if they're to be arable, rivers with quaint names winding to and fro, and a local culture given to phlegmatic understatement and great storytelling. If you've never read Swift—-who won the Booker Prize in 1996 for Last Orders—I can't recommend him highly enough. Waterland and Wish You Were Here are my favorites, and though he too has now attained and surpassed his allotted three score and ten, I pray he'll keep writing for many years to come.

But what about all this escaping? I mean, shouldn't I feel guilty about it? Aren't we taught from an early age that it's not escape we should want but hard-nosed and unrelenting reality, challenge, the opportunity to accomplish great things, that we should be forever marching forward, never looking back?

But let's examine that particular entry in the owner's manual for just a moment. Recalling those three cruel months which, like it or not, I was going to have to live through, two writers, Mick Herron and Graham Swift—men I have never met and doubtless never will meet—took me by the hand at the outset and, calming me all the way, walked with me down what would turn out to be one of the longest, most difficult roads in my life. If that isn't proof that escaping into literature can be good for the soul, I don't know what is.

So, while Max Weber and my mother may shake their disapproving heads at me, the next time things get rough—the bills mount up and the stock market falls—I know what I'm going to do: I'm going to escape into the Talbot County Free Library.

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