Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dear Alice

How is my first favorite granddaughter?  I have a story for you, and since this letter is sent to you inside a book, I bet you have already guessed what the story is about.  Do you sometimes think your grandfather is crazy about books?  It's okay if you do, since your father has told me that for years and years and years.

When I was ten years old, I borrowed a book from the Ft. Worth Library bookmobile.  The bookmobile was a special bus full of books that would drive around to towns that were too small to have their own library.  I still think that bookmobiles may be the best thing that has been invented since the printing press.  I read once that Mexico had built special wooden boxes of books that could be strapped on the backs of mules so that books could be taken to children who lived in the bottom of a deep canyons.  Would you call that a BookMoMule?  We will have to talk about that someday.

Well, the book I found in the bookmobile was Binkie's Billions, a book about a boy with a pet ostrich.

Unfortunately, I lost the book before I could finish reading it.  Since I had checked it out, I had to pay the library for the lost book.   I looked and looked, but I never found the book.  And the library did not have another copy--so I could not finish reading the book. 

I never forgot the book, so it bothered me that I didn't know how the book ended.  Did Binkie get to keep the ostrich?  Did his grandmother lose their house to the bank?  How was I ever going to find out what happened?

Reading a book is like making new friends and not finishing a book is like being rude to your new friend.  You want to know what happened to him.

I looked for a copy of the book in bookstores and libraries all over the country, but no matter where I looked, no one had a copy for me to read.  It sounds silly, but even as I got older, I really wanted to finish that book.  I could remember exactly what chapter I had been reading when I lost the book.

Once, I got pretty close.  I was at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  This is one of the largest libraries in the world.  I checked the card catalog and they had a copy!  You can't take books out of this library, you can only read them while you are in the library.  When the librarian brought me the copy, I couldn't believe it--Binkie's Billions!  It had the same blue cover with the picture of a boy and an ostrich--exactly how I remembered it!

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to read it.  I was visiting the library with a group of people who didn't want to sit in a library, waiting while a grown man read a book written for kids.  (They were looking at me like I was crazy.  Over the years, I have gotten used to that.)  Washington DC is full of lots of wonderful museums and art galleries and the people I was with wanted to go see them instead of waiting while I read the last 100 pages of the book.

Then I had an idea, I could just read the last chapter of the book!  Then I would know how the story ended--what happened to Binkie.  More importantly, I could stop thinking about the book--not having finished reading that book had bothered me for years, now I could quickly read the last seven pages and finally, at long last, forget the book.

But skipping to the last chapter of a book is wrong. You are cheating the author of a chance to tell the whole story.  Skipping to the last chapter of a book is a sin that earns you a spot in a special place in Hell--a place that is normally reserved for people who talk in movie theaters or for graduate students who don't do their homework.

Fifty years after I lost the book, I found another copy.  A library was selling off a lot of old books and one was Binkie's Billions.   I bought the book immediately.  And today, it came in the mail.  If you look inside the front cover, you will find the card the library used to keep track of all the books they loan out.  Lots of boys and girls read the book from 1954 to 1964.  Then for ten years, only one person checked the book out.  And no one read it after 1974.  I wonder why?  Did people get tired of ostriches?  Did they only want to read books about space ships and magic?  I don't know.

Evidently, the book sat on a shelf for years and years and years, with no one caring enough about Binkie to read his story.  But I got the book today and I immediately sat down and read it from the first page to the end.  Fifty years after I started the book, now, I finally know what happened to Binkie and his ostrich.  I could tell you what happened, but then we would both go to that special place in Hell.  You'll have to read it for yourself.  I bet it doesn't take you fifty years to finish the book.

I think you will like Binkie.  And I'll give you one small hint:  the ostrich's name is George.


  1. Alice - bless your heart.

    Mark - damn you to hell. I just checked on Amazon. The 1954 book can be had for only $8.13. Sorely tempted to buy it, the end of the day it's a children's book.

    I remember bookmobiles too, and share your nostalgic fondness for them. They functioned as Christmas on wheels. You'd wander in, eventually find something intriguing, like the next book in the Narnia series, check it out and leave. I remember nights where I'd wander off into the twilight, book in hand, anticipating the coming evening of cricket-enhanced reading, beneath a bare lightbulb; while the occasional mosquito buzzed up against the wooden screen door.

  2. P.S. In case you were wondering about the disgruntled part of my comment: that was for teasing the book without giving away any of the content - which is what promoted my foray onto the Amazon site to look it up. Figures there wouldn't be an e-version.

  3. Did I forget to mention there is a flea circus?

    You would sure hate to have this eating at you for 50 years. You must know someone you can give the book to when you are finished reading it.

  4. Prof, your words on cheaper military had a picture of an inflatable Sherman tank. These were likely the work of Jasper Maskelyne.
    The British Official Secrets Act obscured much of Maskelynes work but vague descriptions of his "rotating mirror searchlight" that was used to disorient German bomber pilots during night attacks on the Suez Canal is worth a read.

  5. Very nice article, just what I needed.