In the mid-60s, I was walking along the dusty main street of Garber, Okla., an oil, cattle and wheat town of 905 people, and went into the town’s drugstore hoping to find a book to read. It seemed unlikely, but I’d try.
And on a counter I found a small, rotating rack of new books. Maybe there was a Max Brand western or two; both my Dad, a bricklayer, and I were fans. But I wanted something of substance to add to my small but growing library of paperbacks.
One title caught my eye: “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The title itself, with its unlikely pair of critters, drew me in. It had to be good. The book was a thin volume — actually a long essay — by Isaiah Berlin, who, I didn’t know at the time, was a well-known British scholar, philosopher and historian of ideas.
The blurb cinched the deal. It was clear and simple. I’d never read anything like “Hedgehog,” but it seemed promising, a good way to spend an evening in the one-light-dangling-from-the-ceiling hotel room where Dad and I stayed nights while brick veneering a house.
I spent 65 cents for it, and couldn’t wait to begin reading. But in fact I barely got started; the truth was obvious: Mr. Berlin’s ideas about Leo Tolstoy’s view of history were far beyond my reach at age 17 or 18. (Half-a-century later “Hedgehog” remains tough skinning. I’m rereading it, often on a table outside Inman Park, the coffee shop on the square, making notes, puzzling over puzzling passages.)
While Mr. Berlin’s essay was over my head 50 years ago, it piqued my curiosity about books of ideas and more demanding reading generally. “The Hedgehog,” with its focus on Tolstoy, prompted me to begin reading Tolstoy’s fiction: his novella, “The Cossacks;” his short story, “The Raid;” and his writing-reporting on the Crimean War, the “Sebastopol Sketches.” (It was years before I would take on his major work, the core of Mr. Berlin’s essay, “War and Peace.”)
These works led to others, and those to still others: more fiction, history, biography, drama, poetry and speeches, particularly those of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and two by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn — his 1972 Nobel Address, and his 1978 commencement address at Harvard: a “World Split Apart,” both of which I’ve turned to often over the years.
The Bible, with its poetry, grand stories and eternal truth, has long fed my interest in literature and fed my needy soul.
I’ve read scores of books on ideas. Currently, Richard Weaver’s, “The Ethics of Rhetoric,” is at the top of my list. His chapter on Lincoln fits my passion for the 16th president. My original copy of “ethics,” a paperback as thin as Mr. Berlin’s essay, is now held together with duct tape. My wife, Janie, bought me a used hardback, but I cling to the old paperback because of the notes I’ve made in it.
I should mention that my mother gets credit for seeing that I read more challenging works when I was a child. In 1952 or thereabouts, she brought home two works of fiction: Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” abridged and simplified, I am sure. Each was treasure, the start of a library.
They were cheap, with cheap bindings, cheap covers, cheap paper. But the adventures were as exciting as if they were printed in fine leather. I read them until they fell apart.
But it was Mr. Berlin who started me toward heavyweight books.
I’ve long been puzzled by this question: How did “The Hedgehog and the Fox” come to be in a book rack in Garber, Okla.? A friend in Decatur, Tom Murphy, who used to be in the book business, said traveling book sellers would sometimes put such books on a rack in a small town — a wry joke perhaps — or with the hope that some reader might buy it.
God bless the man who slipped “The Hedgehog and the Fox” into that rack in Garber. He, along with Mr. Berlin, gets part of the credit for the long and twisting and rewarding trail I’ve taken in my reading.
Tack Cornelius, a writer and resident of Gainesville, belongs to a local Baptist church. His columns appear occasionally.