A regular ritual when I visit my father in Los Angeles, is to go to my much beloved Huntington Library. This week in a quest to organize my life, I reshelved some of my most precious books. Two books my Dad bought me on our most recent trek to The Huntington Library make the cut as precious. Before they went back on the shelf, I sat down and reread them. Then phoned my father.
My parents were divorced when I was very young. At five, I started to join my sister on airplane trips down to California from Vancouver, B.C. every summer. Trips to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Sunday morning rounds to the hospital to see Dad’s patients before church, and visits to the Huntington Library became favourite rituals. I liked trips to the Huntington Library because my stepmother would buy me new dress-up outfits to wear for the outings. As a very little girl, I gravitated to the two paintings of the prints that my mother had bought with white French provincial frames to match my bedroom suite. I called them “Pinkie” and “Bluey”. The prints of the famous paintings, Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, and The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough were positioned over our beds in the room I shared with my sister in Vancouver. I got Pinkie over my bed. The paintings were also displayed in the same room in The Huntington Library. I assumed the artist was the same and that the kids were friends. I wanted a dress like Pinkie’s and I liked the shiny blue outfit “Bluey” was wearing.
When I was 8 years old, one of my Dad’s patients, Lyle H. Wright, was grateful to my father for saving his life. However, post brain surgery, he was no longer able to manage the altitude of 7500 feet above sea level and trips to his precious cabin. We became the proud owners of our Silver Lake cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lyle left all his books. Cabin time lent itself to reading along with blackjack, hiking and fishing.
As I got older, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and The Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum captivated more of my interest on trips to the Huntington Library. I found it amazing that there was a time when books were written, decorated by hand and printed on animal skins. I was amazed that the little metal squares needed to be placed individually in the printing press. I was part of the modern world with the typewriter. My mother’s claim to fame was that she was a private and confidential secretary who could type over 90 words per minute. The dimly lit room in the separate building that houses these literary treasures creates reverent attitude. Or am I simply living out my life as a slave to literacy?
It wasn’t until I talked to my father the other day, that I understood why he wanted to leave the book collection in the cabin untouched. Lyle was a reputed librarian at the Huntington Library who had amassed the significant collection of American fiction. Who knew? After our phone call I followed the process for so many of us living in the COVID-19 era. I logged into my Amazon account and made my desperately required purchase. Another piece of the puzzle will arrive on Sunday.
AMERICAN FICTION, 1876-1900 (AMERICAN FICTION) BY LYLE H. WRIGHT PUBLISHED IN SAN MARINO: HUNTINGTON LIBRARY PRESS, JANUARY 1, 1978; ISBN-13: 978-0873280426. THE FIRST TWO EDITIONS WERE PRINTED IN 1965 AND 1969.
In the meantime, I am feeling infinitely indebted to who I remember as a gentle, old man with white hair, a very big moustache, and a kind smile. Someone who liked me. It was in fact Lyle who cultivated my love for a good murder mystery. I had thought it was Jessica Fletcher on Sunday nights. It was Lyle who provided the opportunity for my Dad to reach for the Edgar Allan Poe collection and terrify me with his suspenseful rendition of “The Pit and the Pendulum”. It was Lyle who fed my quest for social justice when he put Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning within my grasp for repeated readings over the years. Never underestimate the power of a librarian, even long after death. Thank you, Lyle. I just wish I could to talk to you about books!