My father grew up poor, hitting his formative years during the great depression.  Most of his energy went into getting away from that poor place and staying there.  He did it by working his way through college and applying himself diligently to things he had trouble with, like scientific German.  Most of his choices were dictated by circumstance.

The only narrative he subscribed to was the one at the heart of the American dream– achieving success through good fortune and hard work.  He regarded all fiction as frivolous, from airport and beach books to Shakespeare and Tolstoy.  I suspect many men of his generation felt the same.

Naturally, I became an English major, taking up with every literary floozy that came along, from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Atlas Shrugged.”  It wasn’t long before I went hard core, attending poetry readings and filling notebooks with everything that came into my head. It was infatuation, not real dedication, that led me down the literary path.  I was the young man Garrison Keillor mocks so gently on “The Prairie Home Companion,” the one he sees in himself.

I have come to see that books are my escape and my refuge in unsettled times. I remain omnivorous, devouring books of all kinds, shapes and sizes, hardcovers, paperbacks and audio files.  I have yet to purchase an electronic reader, but I can see one in my future. It is the perfect format for expensive, expendable travel guides as well as a great device for airplane reading.

The books I read and the ones I download from Audible take me into different worlds and different times.  I love mysteries, and Donna Leon has escorted me back to Venice several times in the fine company of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Louise Penny has immersed me in the surprisingly complex life of a small village in the Eastern Townships of Quebec with charming Inspector Gamache. With Charles Todd I have travelled all over England at the end of World War I inside the troubled mind of a Scotland Yard inspector plagued with guilt, having had his best soldier shot for insubordination. Stieg Larsson has me hooked by the sexy and sexist, over-caffeinated and nicotine-addicted Swedes.  I can’t wait for the third book in the series.

During the past week, the fine voice of Simon Vance reading Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” has transported me back to Australia while I’ve been walking the circuit of East Campus of Duke University.  Set during the days of the first settlers, it conjures up a simple man whose desires lead him to the darkest places. He is one of the victims of the British impulse to banish the petty thieves of London to “terra nullus,” the continent of Australia.  The injustice affects him for life, of course.  But the aboriginals bear the brunt of the settlers’ fear, ignorance and firepower.  It is a brilliant book.

“The Wayfinders”, by Wade Davis, is a fascinating tour through a handful of aboriginal cultures around the world. Davis suggests that the extinction of cultures is as risky to the future of our species as the precipitous decline of plants and animals. The San people of the Kalahari have found extraordinary ways to survive without water; the Polynesians sail 10,000 kilometers without a sextant or compass and manage to find a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific ocean; the peoples of the Amazon rain forest harvest plants for medicine that we have yet to name.  The subtitle says it all:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

You can cosy up to a good book or take a bumpy ride, but it’s a great way to see and hear the world. And you don’t have to be an English major.

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