Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Flying Pigskin Library

I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips. In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last.
 Theodore Roosevelt
(1916, 13)

I like to think that people are still readers at heart. The bookstores in the airports haven't vanished yet. Small towns still sell books alongside souvenir spoons, thimbles, and snow globes. The books, unless they also cater to the local residents, are a little lightweight at times, but at least they are there for the traveler who would have to pay extra to check a bag full of books.

Vacation reading for Roosevelt, however, was a meaty affair, and he carried a special "Pigskin Library" with him to contain his appetite. In 1916, his book, A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open was published, in which he described his love of the outdoors and all of its sports on par with his love for reading. Wherever he ventured he carried with him "a light aluminum and oilcloth case" that contained that trip's choice of reading material, which weighed about sixty pounds. He explained why he chose pigskin for their bindings:
Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washing. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle bag looks (1909, 23).
A gory, yet romantic image, I think.

I, of course, am fascinated by what the materials (the aluminum, the oilcloth, the "well-used saddle bag") felt like and what books he chose. He certainly didn't have just one book to satisfy him. For one trip he described the books he took as reflecting both his and his son Kermit's taste. Examples included: novels by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and James Fennimore Cooper; poetry by Browning, Emerson and Longfellow;  Dante's Inferno; the Bible with the Apocrypha; Shakespeare, Milton, and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. A familiar literary canon. But, he said, "I need hardly say, it also represents in no way all the books we most care for, but merely those which, for one reason or another, we thought we should like to take on this particular trip."

I mused about the idea of having only one book in yesterday's post. But Roosevelt's pigskin library could accommodate five feet of books. It made me wonder if you were to make a time capsule "five-foot library" to reflect your tastes, that someone could look at and get a well-rounded picture of you--what would you put in it? You've got more choices this time. Everyone's, as Roosevelt says, would be different.
As for a "five-foot library," scores can readily be devised, each of which at some given time, for some given man, under certain conditions, will be best. But to attempt to create such a library that shall be of universal value is foreordained to futility (1916, 8).
Which brings us back to those airport bookstores, with those tiny little shelves. The airport bookstores, as we've seen, have a smaller selection of books that they believe will sell quickly and to the largest number of readers. Roosevelt is right that there cannot be a universal library. Our tastes are not all the same. What if we have forgotten a book we wanted to read, then can't find anything satisfactory in that limited selection?

Well, someone figured this out. I concede that there is an answer, though not nearly as gory or as romantic as a pigskin library. And if one book isn't heavy enough, we can choose another. Our five-foot travel library, perhaps our five-hundred-foot travel library, can be housed in (depending upon whom you ask): the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, or the E-reader. In this case, I don't see them as a threat to paper books at all. They have a place, and that place is in the carry-on bag.

Pigs really can fly, after all.

Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails: an account of the African wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist. 1909.
Roosevelt, Theodore. A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open. 1916.
Theodore Roosevelt Association: Myths, Legends & Trivia: Life of Theodore Roosevelt. "The Pigskin Library Comes to Harvard."
New York Times. "Roosevelt Tells of Jungle Hunts / October Scribner's Will Have His First Installment of 'African Game Trails.' /  Has a Library With Him / Sixty Rounds of Literature Part of His Impedimenta—A Ride on a Cow-Catcher." September 23, 1909.

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