Not knowing isn’t always a bad thing but only if it leads to learning. I have always hated not knowing what a word meant or how something worked. I was intrinsically curious as a boy. I remember reading everything I could get my hands on, literally reading one new book every day. It started with the easy stuff at an early age when I got my first library card; Enid Blyton was an early favourite.
There were world’s way beyond my little street and I wanted to experience them all. But it was the little things that enthralled me. I remember we didn’t have a dictionary and I constantly came across new words that I’d have to remember to look up the next time I went to the library.
One such word that stands out was calico. A girl in the story I was reading wore a calico dress. Although the name of the book has long since been overwritten in the bustle of my mind, I distinctly remember the word and thinking, how beautiful. I don’t really know why the word caught my attention, but it did and I said it out loud and tried to imagine what it was. I was eight years old and my first assumption was that it was a colour. In the context of the story and the girl in that story, it was immediately obvious to me that the colour the word described was yellow.
Perhaps it was the setting, as I liked to lie on the roof of our shed at the end of the garden and read in the summer sun, or perhaps it just was the context in the book, but that calico might mean yellow somehow worked. Usually I’d ask my Mam and she’d tell me. But that day I stayed on the roof until the book was devoured and by the time I’d finished, the word had slipped to the back of my mind.
Some days later I was back in the library and the librarian, a rather pretty woman who wore clothes neatly but with a hint of swish, appeared before me in a yellow dress. I had seen her before and not paid her much attention, but on that day she looked prettier than I remembered, like my Mam, only she was a lot younger and taller. She wore going out clothes like the ones Mam wore sometimes on special nights out, and her hair was filled with waves like the sea.
I was looking at a book way beyond my ability as I often did, drawn to it by the binding and feel of its weightiness. I so wanted to be able to read great big books like this one, but I knew from dipping my literary toe in the water, that I never understood them when I did. Someday I knew I would. They still enthralled me.
“Finnegans Wake?” When I looked up she was smiling down at me. “May I?” I nodded in agreement that she indeed might, and she leaned down and gently took the book from my hands. The pretty librarian opened it and read out loud.
“Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environ.”
It might as well have been Chinese she was speaking but her voice was musical. I saw the words fall from her lips and felt them on the back of my neck. They were delicious, floating through the air. Leaving the book open in her pale hands, she smiled at me again. My mind wandered a little as it was prone to do. She had lost me at ‘Riverrun’ and I was already outside in my head and all the girls on my road were trying to convince me that they could jump higher than I could. That was impossible of course but it was a whimsical notion, the type of weird wandering my mind indulged in. She snapped my back with her sweet voice.
“This is a splendid choice of book. It’s one of my favourites” She closed the book gently and rubbed its front cover affectionately as though it were a living thing.
“Have you read it?”
I was taken aback by the depth of the conversation. Back then adults didn’t talk to children that way. Libraries were hard and fast about the ‘sssh’ rule too and I looked around. We were alone. She was waiting patiently for an answer and although I was normally a tiny little chatterbox, I was in that moment lost for words, so I just shook my head to tell her that I hadn’t.
“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.” She lowered her voice and got down to her hunkers so we were eye to eye…well almost. “I tried many times to read this one and kept giving up. He’s not an easy man to read.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but she smelled nice and I noticed that she had diamonds in her ears. They were twinkly like she was.
“Perhaps you’ll find Mr. Joyce a little boring? I did at your age.” I couldn’t imagine the beautiful lady ever being my age. “What do you like to read? If you could make a wish to find the best book in the whole wide world…what would it be like?”
Somehow she had found my ‘go’ button so off I went. I listed the last five books I had read and told her which one was my favourite and why, and where I had read them, and how long it took me to read them, and which bits I liked and, and, and before you know it I was telling her all sorts of stuff not even related to books.
“Well now…” She said when I finally took a breath and looked over her shoulder as if searching for something in particular and then she stood up. Her hand was offered and I took it. She led me to the children’s section from where I had strayed, and sat me down at a low table instructing me to “wait here a minute.”
As though she knew precisely where every book in the whole library was, she made a Bee-line for a very particular book, slid it out from its perch on a shelf and brought it back to me.
“This is the perfect book for a clever boy like you.”
I looked at it. The book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She stood there for a moment while I examined the book. It was a big thick tome compared to what I normally read and the cover was so exciting. I opened the book and felt a little dismayed because there were so many words on each page and the font was smaller than I was used to. Somehow I knew though, that I would read it all the way through, although I didn’t think I’d get through this one in a day.
“When you bring it back, you can tell me what you thought of it.”
She swished away, the girl in the calico dress, leaving me somewhat dazzled in her wake. I later found out what the word calico meant but in that moment, it described my new found friend perfectly. Like I said at the outset, not knowing isn’t always a bad thing but only if it leads to learning…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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