When I was just staring to read, she gave me Dr. Seuss and Richard Scary books. These were my favorites.
As soon as I was old enough to ride my bike any distance at all, she had me get a library card, and she always had the schedule for where the library’s book mobile would be on any given day. I got to know the librarians in my little Kansas town well, and they always had suggestions for me. I had a rather boyish crush on Ms. Canfield at the city’s public library, and I considered my high school librarian, George Story, one of the wittiest and best-read persons I’ve had the privilege to know in this life.
Through all of my pre-college years, my mom always served as a wondrous source for great reading suggestions. An avid reader herself, she also taught primary school for 41 years, and she had a solid and sometimes downright uncanny sense of what I should read and when I should read it.
The possessor of a very curious and sharp intellect, she has always been an voracious reader, coming by it honestly from her father, the most dignified man I’ve known in my life.
When I started first grade, she led me to a series of biographies written for young readers. As I made my way through grade school, she gave me more and more books, and she never hesitated to introduce me to a seemingly infinite variety of souls, minds, ideas, emotions, and worlds. Authors held a special place of respect in our house. She gave me books of history, world events, biographies, autobiographies, politics, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and suspense. I learned very quickly that a book exceeds a television program in every way.
When I got to junior high, she gave me books by Leon Uris and James Michener, and I fell in love with the history of the Jews and Israel. For a while, I was rather obsessed with possible Jewish ancestry. In high school, she diversified the “ratings” of many of the things she suggested to me. I remember clearly when she handed me a copy of Peyton Place. “Bradley, this is trash, but you should know what kind of trash it is.” She was right. It was trash, but I devoured every word of it.
I also—not thinking this weird while in high school—faithfully read every issue of U.S. News, Newsweek, Time, National Review, The Progressive, The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, and Current History. I had a solid memory for names, dates, and ideas, and I kept copious notes on everything I read.
We Birzers loved to travel as well, and we stopped at every historical marker and museum on any given route. Usually my mom would offer some personal story at every spot: perhaps how my grandfather had been at the dedication of the memorial we were checking out or why the event was important in history and what the person involved would say about our present society. We tried hard to imagine what a Comanche might think or how the first European settlers might see the horizon. We usually took turns reading the historical markers to one another.
We also always lingered in book stores on our trips—whether commercial ones or the kind that exist only at national and state parks, offering a mix of intellectual books as well as postcards, refrigerator magnets, bizarre bobbles, tacky trinkets, and soldier’s caps.
Looking back on those times, I realize that we Birzers just simply loved words and what they could symbolize.
My two older brothers read everything as well, and the two dramatically shaped my own reading. I will never forget my oldest brother’s eighteenth birthday, in September 1977. He received a first edition hardback of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. I fell in love with the cover, an original painting by Tolkien himself, “The Mountain Path.” I had just turned ten, and that picture invited me into the world of faerie and goodness and truth and beauty. Without having read anything by Tolkien yet, I attempted to read The Silmarillion at least 10 times. I pretty much had the story of creation, the Akallabeth, memorized, though it took several years before I could make it through the rest of that majestic novel. The next year, though, I saved up money from mowing yards and bought a boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Decorated with Tolkien’s own renditions of the symbols of the houses of the Elves, it was one of my most prized possessions, though now lost to a borrower who never returned them. Perhaps she too is finding the enjoyment in them that I did.
Both brothers, respectively eight and five years older than me, offered me almost as much as had my mom. In particular, they introduced me not to just Tolkien but to Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury (always my favorite after Tolkien), Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Ursula LeGuin, Kathryn Kurtz, and others. Soon, we would discover Vernor Vinge, Walter Miller, Stephen King, David Brin, S.M. Stirling.
Greg Rehmke, as I’ve written elsewhere at The Imaginative Conservative, introduced me to the writings of the Austrian economists. While in high school, my debate colleagues (especially Ron Strayer) would read Hayek and Hazlitt and discuss the meanings, the implications of these ideas, often while driving through the Great Plains, simply trying to escape the confines of our rather idyllic little town. Often, we read Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Israel Kirzner, and Doug Bandow. I also came to admire Mark Twain, Herman Melville (kind of), Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, and, especially, T.S. Eliot.
In college, my two closest friends, Kevin McCormick and Jim Otteson, introduced me to even more authors. One of the best conversations in my life was a long debate I had with Otteson over the significance of C.S. Lewis and, especially, his Abolition of Man. McCormick and I talked more about works of art and poetry, but E.M. Forester and James Agee were always near as well.
Others—such as my good friend since 1974, Joel—introduced me to Richard Ford, Edward Abbey, and John Muir. Craig Breaden introduced me to Shelby Foote and Francis Parkman.
In 1995, a love of books and ideas brought Winston Elliott and me together. I could never even count how many conversations he and have I had over the past two decades. I can state with certainty, however, that the majority of them revolved around authors and ideas. It was Winston, after all, who convinced me that I should do more than talk about becoming a writer and actually become one. “Oh, Winston,” I said, “What market would there be for stuff I would write? I’m in academia, but I despise academic writing. I want to write for intelligent folks, not for other academics. What market?” “We’ll figure it out, Brad. Just write.” And, I did.
What does all of this mean? In his best novel, Sophia House, Canadian Michael O’Brien writes of each new book as the equivalent of a new soul entering into the world. Some do good, others do harm, but all leave a mark.
As I look back over my own life, I see that at every level I love words. I love them. I adore them. I treasure them. And, I share them.
And, part of the reason I do—maybe the most significant reason that I do—is because I love those who first offered me those words and all of the ideas and beauty connected to each. Whether it’s the direct love of my mother and brothers and friends, or the imagined love of excellence and art that my heroes brought into the world, they each shared themselves through words.
I suspect, though, that if I carried this inquiry far enough, I would learn a rather simple truth. I love words…because I love the Word.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.