Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

The Book that Opened My World

I can still see the seventh-grade desk and my Scheaffer fountain pen, with the ink cartridge and translucent blue barrel. I must have had a number-two pencil too, because we were taking a standardized test. I finished early, so I opened a book, read about places I had never been, and began to dream new dreams.

I still have that book. It was my dad’s: Seven League Boots, published in 1937, the fifth collection of author Richard Halliburton’s colorful travel adventures. Halliburton disappeared in 1939, trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. Today I have all of his books; over the years I’ve found them here and there. But it was Seven League Boots, retelling Halliburton’s adventures in the Caribbean, the Caucasus Mountains, the Soviet Union — and following Hannibal’s tracks on an elephant over the Alps — that changed my life.

I was a lonely seventh grader. I just didn’t fit in the little world I knew. Halliburton showed me there are all kinds adventures and discoveries to be reached for out in the world, no matter who you are. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, opens with a photo of the grinning author in shorts and a white turban in front of the Taj Mahal and a dedication to his four Princeton roommates, “whose sanity, consistency and respectability ... drove me to this book.”

All of Halliburton’s once-famous work is infused with that buoyant, just slightly defiant good humor. Going with him in Seven League Boots, I visited the awesomely massive ruin of U.S. Fort Jefferson far out in the Dry Tortugas, discovering its story of unjust confinement and rampaging fever. Together we interviewed one of the assassins of Russia’s last czar; we met some descendents of 12th century Crusaders who’d been marooned for centuries in the Caucasus with their swords and helmets and armor; we conversed in a desert tent with Ibn Saud, the towering and near-mythic creator of Saudi Arabia; we visited Mount Athos, the Greek monastery island that had been closed to females, of all species, since the days of Byzantium — and I’ve never forgotten the horrors we beheld on Spinalonga, the island off Crete that was one of the world’s last leper colonies.

Halliburton was often dismissed or belittled in his day as a popularizer, even a fantasizer — yet decades later, his detailed account of the assassination of the czar and his wife and children would be proven correct. And he could write! Here is how he opens that account:

Lying prostrate in his bed, desperately ill, Peter Zacharovitch Ermakov, one of the three Bolshevik officers who, on the night of July 16, 1918, murdered Czar Nicholas II of Russia and all six members of his family, poured out with semi-delirious violence the whole dreadful story of the slaughter of the Romanoffs.

Nobody else penetrated the layers and decades of Soviet denial and obscuration, traveled to Ekaterinburg east of the Ural Mountains, and persuaded Ermakov to tell that terrible story. Halliburton did.

And here’s one of the greatest lead paragraphs in all human-interest journalism — the one that opens his chapter “The Oldest Man in the World”:

“He’s been drunk for the last hundred and thirty years,” sighed the great-granddaughter of the old Caucasian soldier who was seated before me clutching a vodka bottle. “I’ve given up all hope of reforming him.”

By the time I finished Seven League Boots, the world looked different. I was different. I was no longer wholly imprisoned by seventh-grade meanness and pressure to conform; I had glimpsed with opening joy a living globe that was vast, vivid and wide-open to an adventurous soul — and I wasn’t the only one. In the depths of the Great Depression, Halliburton “thrilled an entire generation of readers,” said a publisher who later reissued The Royal Road to Romance.

In the depths of our depression and bewilderment today, we could use another writer like him.

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Friday, 19 October 2018

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