I grew up in Mukilteo, Wash. – a small seaside town about half an hour north of Seattle. It’s mostly known for its ferry route to Whidbey Island, a historic lighthouse, and a stellar beach coated with cracked seashells. A train runs along the coastline – its nightly whistle lulled me to sleep for years. But what I loved most about the town was the library. The small neighborhood branch was snuggled in the corner of a turn-of-the-century building that once served as the town’s city hall. The building was a strange color – a pale blue-purple, thickly painted over a cement exterior. The library itself was unimpressive – it looked more like a professor’s office, stacked high with books and random piles of journals. But it was my haven. It had the smell of thousands of books and the librarian’s familiar strong perfume. I’d run my fingers across the threadbare bindings, appreciating the shape of various books — like a boxed gift with a hidden treasure inside. To me, reading is an experience for all the senses, especially tangible – I’ll never use a Nook.
I read insatiably: popular fiction, mysteries, historical non-fiction, biographies. I’d borrow as many books as I could carry in a plastic Safeway bag I always brought with me. Then I’d head across the street to Larry’s convenience store where a friendly elderly man helped me count out pennies to buy sour patch kids.
With a paper bag full of candy in one hand and dragging a heavy sack of books in the other, I walked downhill to the railroad tracks, overlooking the sea, and read until the sun set and my fingers sticky from the candy.
Asian American families were scarce in that neighborhood and children my age even more so. The world of books and the routine I had in reading them brought comfort – and an opportunity to imagine a world outside that small town.
I still read today – but the candy is replaced with coffee or some other equally nutritious snack. Even if it was late and I felt weary from a long day – my arm always reached out to one of the books on the nightstand. Right now, I’m reading “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,” an in-depth characterization of the founding father; “A Voyage Long and Strange,” detailing what happened in America in between Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” in 1492 and the pilgrim’s crossing two hundred years later; and lastly, on my nightstand is “Women Who Ruled the Mongol Empire,” which serves as a sequel to a previous book by Jack Weatherford who researched the life and times of Ghengis Khan. What can I say, I’m a history nut.
But enough of what I’m reading – our issue highlights what other writers are picking up this summer. In addition, we feature literary figures across the country who share which Asian American books have personally influenced them and their work. We also explore the threat to neighborhood libraries as budget cuts force closures and the elimination of services needed by communities of color. Our staff reporter will guide you on an Asian American literary tour through Seattle’s Chinatown/International District – you’ll be surprised at the number of books inspired by the historic neighborhood.
The idea for the literary tour came from our Arts Editor, Alan Lau – a fellow book worm. He started the Pacific Reader – an IE literary supplement of Asian American-oriented book reviews, about three decades ago. If you ask him exactly when, he’ll just respond with a smile, “Too long ago!” Funny, this is the same answer he gives whenever he’s asked when he started with the IE.
While Alan and I are pretty different – he’s a generation or two older than me and a long-time community artist and poet — we share this in common — we’re passionate about books.
I recommend everyone to pick up at least one book this summer and share it with someone else. It brings people together as you’ll see in an article about our annual book club and discussion. And encourage younger people to read. They’re inundated with instant short messages on social networks. A book can lend a sense of calm, improve literacy, expand understanding and perspective, and introduce new worlds.
In this annual Pacific Reader, compiled by Alan and contributed to by numerous writers, we cover the gamete – from children’s books, graphic novels, literature, memoirs, and poetry. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy. So grab some penny candy, snuggle up with this softer issue of the IE and be transported into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, indulge in the anecdotes of comic characters, and find your haven. Nooks not allowed.