Tales of Discovery

The Road goes ever on and on. Especially in this house.

Missy lay back smiling as we wandered the roads of Middle-earth once more, letting the words wrap her like a blanket. Battles with Orcs. Respites with Elves. Wry comments from Gandalf. What better way to finish the day?

In twelve years of bedtime reading, we’ve come back to Professor Tolkien four times. The only other chronicle to get the same demand for an encore performance has involved a certain boy wizard. So you could say our reading nights are magical in more ways than one.

I hadn’t expected it. But then, I hadn’t expected a lot of things with Missy. Caring for a disabled relative has many adventures, so why should it be surprising that some of them involve hobbits with magic rings?

Especially when the same magic seduced me in the same way.

Long ago (if not exactly in the Third Age), Dad introduced me to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We read them together out loud, trading off halfway through the chapter, storytellers relating an epic.

Entranced? Oh, yes.

Some of it was the sheer sound of the words. To this day, I maintain that Tolkien must be read out loud to get the full effect, letting the narrative surround and suffuse you like a piece of music.

Some of it was the love being shared, the connections formed as my Dad and I discovered a mutual passion and reveled in it.

And so much of it was what it opened inside me and around me. An exciting tale, well told, that spoke of discovering new places and rediscovering old lore. Where compassion could be more valuable than strength and loyalty as important as learning. Where victory didn’t have to mean triumphing over every obstacle, but simply enduring long enough to do the job you needed to do.

That spoke to me. It still does.

I know I’m not alone in my passion. But frankly, it wouldn’t matter if I was. It’s the tale that was there when I needed to hear it, that still fits me in a way no other story can.

We all have a tale like that. Or should.

For one of my friends, it was “The Outsiders,” discovered at just the right moment of adolescence.

For my wife Heather, it was a slim middle-grade novel called “The Higher Power of Lucky” that still has the power to infuse hope.

For others I’ve known, it’s been “The Secret Garden,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or … but that’s the point, isn’t it? There are as many possibilities as there are people, lying in wait like the world’s most wonderful ambush.

Everyone deserves a book that reaches their heart. No matter whether the world acclaims it or just you, it is forever yours and forever you.

Others can guide, suggest, encourage. (Heaven knows my folks did.) But you’re the only one who knows what fits. And when you know, nothing can keep it from you.

Some will try. But it’s a hard door to lock. Neither sneers nor bans will hold in the face of the determined and the curious. Give even the hint of a new possibility and the explorers will come.

And the best of those journeys will last a lifetime.

Tonight, our own journey continues. I don’t know what about Middle-earth hooked Missy’s heart but I’m glad for it. It’s something we can share, a world we travel together with old friends and new thoughts waiting around every bend.

The Road goes ever on and on.

And the next step is just a page away.

Burning for Bookstores

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. Everyone knows that.

You don’t touch Popeye’s spinach. Or swipe James Bond’s car. Or get scuff marks on Elvis’s blue suede shoes.

And if you’re a sensible human being who wants me to keep my (precarious) sanity, you don’t ever, ever mess around with my access to bookstores.

Trouble is, sensible people seem to be in short supply lately.

If you’re a book addict, too, you’ve seen the progression. First, the smaller bookstores got squeezed out, like the old City News on Main Street, where I worked my way through college. Then came the larger fish: Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders.

And now? Now the bell may be tolling on the mighty shark known as Barnes & Noble. After successfully savaging all its competition, the retail book chain has been cutting stores, cutting expenses on the Nook, and most recently cutting its list of owners, as Liberty Media decided to sell its stake and run.

It’s enough to make a person think of dinosaurs and meteors.

Instead, I think of wildfires.

No, I’m not suggesting we put all of Barnes & Noble to the torch. After all, bookstores are my natural habitat. I can disappear more thoroughly there than Bilbo Baggins with a magic ring, coming up only for meal times. Maybe.

There’s a smell to bookstores you can’t get anywhere else, of paper and dust and dreams. Maybe a few other things besides; my beloved City News wrapped popcorn and pipe tobacco into every scent.

Best of all, a good bookstore is a center for serendipity. Wander the shelves and you’ll meet at least one title you’ve never noticed before. (Come to think of it, I met my wife the same way.) Amazon’s recommendations may be near-prescient at times, but it still can’t match the shuffle-the-deck surprises you get from just one hastily glimpsed cover.

Old-fashioned? Sure.

Nostalgic? Undoubtedly.

Dead? Don’t bet on it yet.

This is where the wildfires come in.

Every Coloradan who’s survived the last couple of summers knows how a wildfire works in a forest. A lot of big trees get cleared out, some of them very old and very loved, that seemed like they’d stand forever.

And once the flames die down, there’s a space cleared. And new life can come to the undergrowth.

“I see room for smaller bookstores again,” one friend said on Facebook.

“Maybe this will allow the mom-n-pop local bookstores to come back,” another agreed. “That would be a good thing.”

It would indeed. And I see some of the spaces that could do it. Sellers who pay attention to the customer, who become crucial community gathering points, who don’t have the cumbersome supply chains and monstrous overheads of the world’s Bookzillas.

The chains seemed to offer every book in the world. But Amazon can do that, and do it cheaper.

The smaller ones offer you not just a book, but a home.

They’re out there. Heck, they’re out here. And they’re ready to write the next chapter.

Maybe I’m being unduly optimistic. Maybe the big chains clear-cut the bookstore landscape so that nothing’s left. But somehow I don’t think so. Book-lovers can survive this fire, every single one of us.

Even if it is a real Barnes-burner.