by Terry Wieland
Please forgive me for invoking Ernest Hemingway (yet) again, but whenever I start to write something, I all too often find he’s been there before me and written it better than I ever could.
This is no small thing when one makes a living from writing about hunting and shooting: One always finds one’s self in competition with people named Hemingway, Ruark, and O’Connor.
Having said that, on my current topic — reading — Hemingway made passing comment in a piece he wrote for Esquire in 1935 called “Remembering Shooting-Flying: a Key West Letter.” At least it seemed like passing comment until I consulted it once again in the interests of accuracy and found that paragraph three amounts to a reading list of novels, starting with Anna Karenina, and continues on through the great accounts of shooting he found in that novel as well as Turgenev and a few others.
The important thing is that he not only lists reading as one of three things he’s loved all his life (along with shooting and fishing) and also something to be remembered with great fondness when the best of the books runs out.
The trick I’ve found is to discover a few books that can be read, and re-read, and remembered and savored at the same time as you are reading it for the tenth or hundredth time, and this will save you from boredom and depression in such varied locales as a motel room in Terre Haute, a tent in the Okavango, and the airport in Reno as you wait for a sudden snowstorm to blow itself out.
The first example, Terre Haute, is not my own. It happened to Michael McIntosh back in 1990, when he was crossing the country with his dog and blew an engine. He had to smuggle the dog into the motel and hole up with one bottle of Scotch as he waited for the engine to be replaced.
It was a long three days, since if he left the room the dog would bark, and he couldn’t risk taking her out, and so there he stayed with no books and only television (horrible!) and the telephone (expensive!) to fill the time. It was, as I say, a really long three days.
That, however, was the life lesson that impressed upon me, whether driving, flying, or horseback, the need to carry a few of the eternal books — those that can be re-read — as well as, in recent years, a coffee maker, five pounds of French Roast beans, two coffee grinders (in case one packs in, as one did at the end of a long day that ended in a La Quinta in Wichita Falls), two (2) 100-watt bulbs to replace the dingy 50s you now find in energy-conscious hotels and, as well, a small reading lamp that can be set up almost anywhere. (Why two bulbs? Eventually one will burn out. I believe in back-ups to the back-ups.)
Reading, I’ve found, can get you through almost anything, and the same cannot be said of computers, iPads, or other battery-powered devices. You can have the entire British Library on Kindle, but if your battery goes dead, there goes your escape.
Almost as essential as books and good reading light is a chair. At home, I have, on the third try, found the perfect reading chair. It has tweedy upholstery, which prevents slipping and sliding; it has generous padded arms to support big, heavy books, and it props one at just the right angle to put one knee over the other. (I know, I know — bad for the back.) However, when reading a big, big and heavy, heavy book — I put a firm cushion on my knee and rest the book on that.
Most mornings when I’m at home, between the hours of four and six, I can be found in that chair, with a book, continuing my education.
Now, you may ask, if Ernest Hemingway had Anna Karenina and the works of Turgenev, what are my eternal books? Number one, all time: The paperback copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast I bought in 1966.
They made paperbacks to last in those days, Bantam especially, with paper and bindings as durable as the prose they contain. (Right there may be the reason modern paperbacks are largely disposable.)
Runner-up is any collection of Hemingway’s short stories. I’m on my third or fourth copy, but only because I keep giving them away to poor, deprived souls.
With Feast, I have the added advantage that I can rest the book on my knee, close my eyes, and remember every place I ever read it over the past 56 long years, then pick it up again and find myself in a freezing garret in Paris, feeding twigs into a tiny woodstove or — the absolute best of all — sipping an espresso in “a good café on the Place St.-Michel,” writing about a windy fall day up in Michigan, and admiring a pretty girl with hair like “a crow’s wing.”
For 56 years, shooting editor Terry Wieland has been searching for the formula for Hemingway’s rum St. James. So far, it has eluded him. So has a good recipe for Robert Ruark’s squirrel-head stew.