His Sins Were Scarlet, but His Books Were Read

By | February 19, 2011 | 3 Comments
This is an essay from the forthcoming Summer 2011 Issue of my zine, The Inner Swine.

The Don Camillo Books

Don CamilloWould it shock anyone to learn that I was something of a nerd as a teenager? It would not. As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure that when each issue of The Inner Swine arrives in your mailbox, you shout “NERD!” and then throw it in the garbage. You bastards.

However, being a nerd in high school wasn’t exactly terrible. I didn’t have a negative high school experience. If you watch TV or movies, having any sort of personality or brains when you were fifteen is depicted as The Worst Possible Thing Ever because apparently the world is filled with people who were lonely, bullied, sad people in high school because they had acne or didn’t play football, or read books or something. That wasn’t my experience. Oh, I was a nerd, all right. I wasn’t exactly cool in my high school. And we had football players and such, and a definite caste system. It was just that it was a private Jesuit-run prep school and everyone there was an academic nerd to some degree, so it wasn’t so bad. I had some good times in high school.

As a child, my father had done a lot to interest my brother and me in books and reading. He read to us, and there were always books around, and Dad liked to be well-read, which rubbed off on his sons. When I was really young he brought home a tattered paperback book titled Don Camillo Takes the Devil by the Tail, left it in the bathroom, and I started reading it.

It was the least likely book ever to make an impression on a kid in the early 1980s. It was written by an Italian author in the 1950s and translated into English. It involved stories about a priest in a tiny Italian village and his antics against the Communist mayor. It involved a lot of sincere religious feeling, including direct dialogs with Jesus. It was outdated, completely foreign, and almost aggressively Catholic and sentimental.

Naturally, I loved it.

Religious themes don’t bother me as long as they’re sincere and part of the story. The Christian themes of The Chronicles of Narnia weren’t very apparent to me when I read them as a kid, and when I became aware of them they didn’t change my appreciation for the stories. Even so, at that tender age I found the bald-faced Catholicism in the books to be twee and cloying. But I found the style and characters charming, and if I didn’t quite understand the politics that was okay. I didn’t understand half the shit I read.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in my high school library, and damn if I don’t suddenly discover there are several more books written by Giovannino Guareschi about the same characters. The same thing had happened to me earlier in life with the aforementioned Narnia books—I read the first one and never thought there might be more. Prior to the all-knowing Internets, this was a common affliction for me. I now realize I am very present-oriented and tunnel-visioned, so I only pay attention to what’s right in front of me. See one book, why assume there are more? I am strangely content because of this limitation.

Anyway, I found a bunch more of these books in the school library. Green hard covers, no dustjackets. Smelled like old books. Hadn’t been checked out of the library since 1972. Out of sheer curiosity, I borrowed them, and enjoyed them just as much. They’re dated, silly, and kind of corny. I still love those books for some reason. I borrowed them a few more times and then approached the librarian with a proposition: I’d buy the four books for $20. This was 1988. In 2011 money, that’s $36.

I remember almost nothing about the Librarian. My memory is a strange beast, mostly useless. I remember things that never happened and I have absolutely no recollection of things multiple parties swear happened to me with my voluntary and sober volition. So it’s no surprise that I remember almost nothing about a guy who worked at the library in my school for a while when I was sixteen. But I do remember one thing: His amazement when I offered to buy the books.

No one had taken them in fifteen years before I came along, so he had no objections. I think he might have been 40% amazed a kid wanted to buy the damn things and 60% amazed the books themselves were still on the shelves. He took my money and I took my books, and a long relationship with the used book began that day.

I still have them. I occasionally even take them off the shelf and read a story or two. They’re as corny as ever. I have yet to meet anyone else in the world who has also read them, although I am sure others exist.

Some might see this as evidence of how Things Are Better with Print—you can’t imagine a similar scenario involving Kindles. Instead, I think it falls under the category of Not Better Just Different. Imagine if I’d found the first book on my father’s Kindle. It would have taken me about six seconds to discover every other book Guareschi ever wrote, and buy them. Probably using my dad’s credit card, causing all sorts of sadness and horror. instead of lucking onto the books years later, I’d have found them immediately.

Does that lack a bit of romance? Maybe. Sure. Fuck romance. We’re talking about finding good books to read.

You can natter on and on about the joys of a good book store, and I’ve spent my share of hours browsing fantastic book stores, when there were such things. But there’s something to be said for not having to buy your books from your high school library, bubba.

I think I’m drunk.

3 Comments

  • Sarah W says:

    Your father was a wise man – leaving books in the bathroom for your kids to find is a genius move.

    I’ve been stalking How to Become King (Terlouw, 1978) at my public library for years, just waiting for the moment it’s discarded and placed on the booksale shelves. I live in fear that I might be too late, but it’s either this, or buy a copy for $75, sight unseen . . .

  • jsomers says:

    Sarah: I love library sales. I’ve stalked a few myself. Good luck with the Terlouw!

  • DeadlyAccurate says:

    I went to a small public high school that didn’t have quite the caste system portrayed on TV. Both the head cheerleader and captain of the football team (plus several other cheerleaders and football players) were on the math team. The head cheerleader was also valedictorian. (My envy would like to say she ended up an overweight, acne-faced, college drop-out with six kids and no husband, but the truth is, she works at a university in California, has been married for a long time to one man, has a beautiful daughter, and she’s just as beautiful today as she was back then. Life is so unfair sometimes).

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