Mr. Otter and Mr. Hood

My love affair with books began when I was a little boy sprawled on the living room floor.

I was lying on the carpet, peering at a strange world of chair legs, fingernail clippings, and dead hair when I noticed something alien propping up the sofa.

It was a book. A small beaten paperback, valiantly subbing for a sofa leg that had died and gone to sofa leg heaven. Its hard work was unnoticed from the world above but from my ground-level advantage I could see that it was putting in the hours.

Somehow I got my hands on this book. I remember its wounded midsection, crushed by the nightly weight of a family bloated with dinner, settling down to watch TV. Did we care more for electronic entertainment than we did for reading? The injured book would have said so.

These are patchy memories of course. I don’t remember what the book was about (I think it involved a talking otter named Olga); neither can I remember what I did with it after taking pity on its broken chest.

What I do remember is that I enjoyed opening its pages, looking at the amusing illustrations, and trying to understand what all the words meant.

It was a strange book. You’d think a talking otter would be enough to capture the imagination of a 5-year-old wouldn’t you? Well, it didn’t. Mr Otter was bizarre and his conversations were lost on me. But his world, the literal pages in which he lived, musky and brown with age, were certainly alluring. It was nothing like the bright-colored Dr Seuss books in infant school. No, this was a different vehicle with a different universe. Were there others like it?

There were. I soon discovered another musty paperback lying around the house, a dog-eared book about Robin Hood. Like Mr Otter it had an aged, neglected feel to it and looked ready – almost eager – for prop-up duty. Luckily, I caught it before it could be shoved beneath a wobbly table.

This book captivated me. It was a definite improvement over Mr Otter; I could actually understand some of the sentences. Of particular interest was when Robin Hood dueled with Little John over a small river in the middle of Sherwood Forest. I could practically smell the oak trees and feel the autumn air gnawing at Robin’s face. I could hear their clashing staffs and echoing grunts. And I could truly sense Little John’s paradoxical joy of being felled into the cold waters by an impish yet fearless stranger. I knew they’d become friends. Indeed they became comrades.

I didn’t have the faculties to finish the book (it was clearly geared for young adults) but it had sufficiently awakened me to the power of the written word. I would dip again and again into my favorite portion of the story, the river duel, and reveled in my fragmented understanding. This, coupled with the book’s weathered charm, reinforced my belief in realities greater than my own.

Books were journeys, adventures in imagination. The people who wrote them, they had the best jobs in the world. Their tales were gardens of wonder; the price of admission was simply belief. All I had to do was open their books and enter the gates.

This was when I knew I was going to be a writer.

Thirty years and countless books later here I am, a product of all I’ve read, a lover of words. Ask me what my favorite tomes are and be prepared to wait in vain; there really are too many to mention.

From Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, Steven Mosley’s A Tale of Three Virtues, to John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel, my loves are like the mismatched patches of a cherished quilt.

All I can say with certainty is that my first books are the ones I love the most. I know I can scarcely remember them and for this they tease me in the night. But they’re the ones responsible for my overloaded bookshelves. They’re the ones that keep me reading and writing, trying to recapture the smell of oak, the cool of the forest, the strangeness of sentient animals.

Mr Otter and Mr Hood, I owe you.

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