Want to get away? Open a good book

Want to get away? Open a good book

“The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet” by Eleanor Cameron was published in 1954, the year before I was born.

Fifteen years later, human beings walked on the moon.

You’ve all heard the expression, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” but what happens when it’s actually stranger than science fiction?

That’s where the imagination comes in, and when I was growing up, there was no better portal than the public library. I think I spent more time in the one in my little town than I did playing baseball, and that’s saying something, but it’s the truth, not fiction.

Of course, reading is a solitary pursuit, unlike baseball, which requires the sublimation of the ego in order to excel individually in a collective setting, but the rewards of both are quite similar. Done correctly and with plenty of practice, you can lose yourself in ways that create not only enjoyment, but enlightenment.

I was 11 years old when I read the first in the “Mushroom Planet” series of books. It was the summer 1966, and the Little League team, for which I played second base, was on its way to the city championship, and that was a pretty big deal. I mean the local newspaper sent a writer and a photographer to cover the finals.

So with the library’s Summer Reading Club and the town’s Little League season running concurrently, it was a great time to be a kid.

And don’t even get me started on the music that poured from the transistor radio that summer. Why, in a single week, you’d hear everything from “Summer in the City” to “Paperback Writer.”

Speaking of writers, Eleanor Cameron captured her readers’ attention in the first chapter of “Wonderful Flight” by creating some theater of the mind when describing something strange.

A few lines, she wrote, down at the very bottom corner of the next to last page of the newspaper, printed in green ink. This, of course, captured my imagination immediately. In addition to the local paper, my family also received the one from Dad’s hometown, and on Sundays, the big, thick one from the city where Mom grew up.

When a writer, in the matter of just a few words, can create that kind of anticipation, even before mentioning a spaceship and a mission to a little planet whose inhabitants are in trouble, well, you’re suddenly transported from the library to a whole new world.

And that’s what reading used to be: a means to escape the here and now for unknown places, a way to explore what was out there.

I don’t think that happens much these days, though I’m no expert on the subject of what kids are doing with their free time. Call it an old guy’s gut instinct, nothing more, nothing less. Books like the “Mushroom Planet” series probably can’t compete with other, more immediate, sources of entertainment and enlightenment.

If I were a father, a parent, I don’t think I’d do a very good job at being much more than a bystander, a witness to things beyond my understanding. It’s a very good thing my destiny wasn’t being a dad because the last thing the world needs is someone like me.

Then again, my children might be able to make sense out of the flat-screen “smart” TV that I’ve managed to make even less efficient than the old black-and-white set I grew up watching. Somehow, I’m supposed to be able not only to access the internet, but also HBO Max, which has taken the place of woeful Netflix.

Maybe I should place an advertisement in the local paper, printed in green ink: “Wanted, young person who can make sense of this new-fangled TV set and, maybe, get a 1991 Honda Civic to run.”

I have no idea how far behind the technological curve I’ve fallen, but I’m pretty sure it’s too late for me to catch up, and that’s OK.

From what I can tell, newspapers hardly exist anymore, music is falling on deaf ears, TV is a wasteland and movie theaters are mostly empty. No one reads books, and libraries are pointless.

It’s all computers and smart phones, algorithms deciding what you see and read, no real connection with people, which, considering how half the country hates the other, is probably not all that bad.

Look, I’m no get-off-my-lawn codger. I still keep an open mind and have hope for younger people. When the Supreme Court screws up badly, I still maintain faith in a better tomorrow.

But it’s getting harder to head out into the world every day. My wife’s been retired for several years and will turn 70 in a few months. We worry about things like healthcare and housing.

We try to get to the beach weekly, but even that’s becoming pricey.

I do my best not to drag home my problems, but even that concession to marital happiness can be draining. I cannot remember the last time I slept for eight hours straight.

What I need is a spaceship to another, greener world, one without war and racism, inflation and duplicitous politicians, greed and anger, a place where what matters is helping, not hurting, others.

For now, though, I’m pulling up the drawbridge, stocking the moat with piranha and settling in with a good book, something that can take me to a better place in a more compassionate, empathetic time.

Looks like it’s going to be another “Mushroom Planet” summer.

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