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Misadventures of a bookish boy

August 13, 2009

My drive to own books began when I was 11. By then I'd acquired a decent reading level, and perhaps more important, some money of my own. Plus I had the perfect place to buy them - the Friends of the Library's annual book sale.

But while I had purchasing power, I had no literary tastes. Thus the books I bought at the sale often ran the gamut from the incomprehensible to the completely bizarre.

In all fairness, there were no clues about a book's content. The books were almost all hardbacks, and old hardbacks at that - many of them 19th century vintage. There were no illustrated covers and no synopses or reviews on the flaps, because none of the books had flaps in the first place. As a result, I bought books simply because they had intriguing titles or looked pretty or had a promising introduction.

Three of them are forever burned into my memory.

The first was a thin book, "The Complete Guide to Raft Building." As soon as I saw the title, a vivid image came to me: On a hot summer day I was in the middle of Lake Flower, stretched out on my raft, taking in the scenery and the rays, without a care in the world a regular Hebraic Huck Finn. And I'd stay on my raft, coming to shore only for an ice-cold root beer and to hear the envious Ooo's and Ahhh's of the other town ragamuffins.

The plans in the book were clear and easy to understand, but I had one major problem: I didn't have the money to buy enough wood or the wherewithal to put the thing together if I had. So I did the only thing I could - I improvised. I made a raft all right, but one of my own design and execution.

I named it The Atlantis, after the lost continent. It was a painfully appropriate name: The raft's initial launching and final sinking both took place within 20 seconds of each other.

The next memorable book, had a cover of beautiful emerald green leather, and both its title and the edges of its pages were bright gold. It was a late 19th century non-fiction medical classic called "Brain Fever."

Brain fever was a big deal in the 1800's. Today we believe "brain fever" was either meningitis or encephalitis, but way back when, since they couldn't diagnose those things, it was any disease that fried your brain. The book was completely unreadable, since it was chockfull of nothing but hifalutin medical jargon and old-timey prose jammed in 100-word sentences. Nonetheless, I kept it for years because it was so beautiful to look at.

The bitter and the sweet

The final member of the Friends of the Library Trinity of Literary Disasters was a classic. It was written in the 1920's by an authentic old-age charlatan (as opposed to today's authentic New Age charlatans). There were a bunch of initials after his name and he was a doctor of something, probably phrenology, for all I knew. Given the times, he also was a eugenics advocate.

The book's title was "S.P.R.I.G.," which was an acronym, though for what I've long since forgotten. Essentially, the book was the learned doctor's secret plan for healthy mind, body and spirit.

I read his every word as if it was gospel and a bunch of it made sense. Then again, if you say enough things, inevitably some of them have to make sense. So his advocating exercise and his eschewing alcohol, tobacco and caffeine impressed me as perfectly sensible. Others of his recommendations, however, seemed either ill-founded or completely unfounded.

A perfect example was his "snow baths." For excellent skin tone and cardiac wellness he claimed nothing was better than going outside each winter morning at dawn, clad only in a bathing suit, and vigorously rubbing snow over all exposed body parts. I didn't know where the good doctor's office was, but I knew for sure it wasn't anywhere in the Adirondacks.

Then there were walnuts as brain food. Best thing in the world to improve memory, alertness, mathematic ability and God knows what else, he said. Six to seven a day, every day, and you'd be a virtual Sir Isaac Newton in no time. And what did he base this on? As far as I could figure, it was sympathetic magic, plain and simple.

Examine a whole walnut meat, he said, and notice how closely it resembled the human brain, in both shape and convolutions. This meant their sole purpose was to improve your brain.

He did have one exception to this, though: If you suffered from "feeblemindedness," you'd been doomed by bad genes, so no amount of walnuts or anything else could help you. As a eugenicist, he had quite a few rants about feeblemindeness. Ultimately, if you followed the rest of his advice, you could become a stronger person, surely, but never a smarter one.

The walnut bit struck me as about as cockamamie as it gets, but even that didn't make me consign his work to the Hall of Quackery. It took a much more glaring lapse in thought to do that, namely his prohibition of sugar.

He said sugar in any form was less a food than a poison. It rotted the liver worse than it did the teeth; caused cataracts, hemophilia, intestinal inflammations, patellar misalignment, spinal disintegration; and worst of all, psychopathologies galore. In fact, a warden at a famous southern prison said that in his 30 year career he'd never met a death row inmate who wasn't a complete sugar addict.

That was it - I put down his book and never so much as glanced at it again.

To me, giving up tobacco, alcohol and caffeine was not only sensible, but easy too, since I did none of those things anyway. But give up sugar? I'd just as easily give up breathing.

Sugar took the place in my life that religion took up in others'. It soothed and sustained me; it gave me something to look forward to each day, and sweetened my bitter realities, both literally and figuratively. I didn't live on sugar; I lived for it.

Clearly, I never would've survived the disease, disorder and disaster of my life without sugar. How many fevers had been broken due to the healing powers of Sugar Daddies? How many sore throats had been soothed away by lemon drops? How many depressions lifted by a strawberry soda at Myer's lunch counter? Too many to count, that's how many.

And what, according to the doctor, were we supposed to eat instead of sugar? Fresh fruit, that's what.

Once I read that, I lost all faith in the doctor.

Maybe I was young and ignorant of the subtleties of psychology, I knew this much: Anyone who thought a raison could substitute for a root beer barrel, or a banana for a Baby Ruth was himself suffering from a dread malady - feeblemindeness.



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