I pack light for my summertime ramblings in New England.
For years I loaded in a pile of books for my trips — presidential biographies, World War II chronicles, Cold War spy novels, mysteries. Then I realized that I got to hardly any of them. I was distracted — by the cool waters of Echo Lake at the base of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, for example, and by the view from Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, and by the tang of fried clams from Harraseeket Lunch in South Freeport, Me., the cool relief of a mid-afternoon ice cream from Round Top in Damariscotta, the smell of the pies baking across the region, and the rich crunch of picked-today sweet corn from an unattended wooden roadside stand in backroads New Hampshire.
I was also distracted by the books I borrowed along the way.
In houses we visited or rented, in inns we frequented or visited just once, and sometimes even in chain hotels, there were tucked-away jewels and gems, sometimes out in the open (on yawning bookshelves), sometimes on stone mantelpieces (leaning one way or another), occasionally employed under a wobbly table (to keep the crockery from sliding).
And as a result I have read long-forgotten novels; lost myself in multiple accounts of women’s lives in snowy winters (prompting wonder at Elizabeth Coatsworth’s migration from cold Buffalo to colder Nobelboro, Me.); thumbed through guides to Vermont hiking (oh, the places I’d go, if only I were 20 years younger); and dipped into anthologies of Maine stories (and not only reading, for the millionth time, Henry Beston and E.B. White).
This is how in Ogunquit, Me., I first discovered Edward Crankshaw’s “The Shadow of the Winter Palace,” an approachable account of the last four tsars of Russia — the two Alexanders and the two Nicholases. I have returned to that house on Frazier Pasture Road every year — and for 20 years I have read a few pages, advancing the bookmark a millimeter each summer. Last August I reached page 238 and the beginning, in 1877, of the Russo-Turkish War. I have 191 pages and exactly 40 years of tortured and tortuous Russian history to go to reach the year 1917 and the end of the Romanovs. At that rate I should get there by August 2029. (I know how the story ends, but — in words attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, another frequent visitor to Maine — it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.)
My journey over the years has included reading one novel by Anthony Trollope — unusually easy to find on a musty North Country bookshelf — and one volume per summer of Winston Churchill’s Second World War account. I polished off the final Churchill volume by reading someone else’s copy in Maine.
Last summer we popped in to a 110-year-old inn nestled on the shore of Kezar Lake in Lovell, Me., and expected to find the books of New England authors like Louise Dickinson Rich or maybe John Cole. Instead, beside the 1,000-piece Beers of New England jigsaw puzzle were propped seven volumes by Stephen King, which seemed appropriate on a dark, very spooky Maine night — especially since the master of the horror story has a home on that very lake.
We spent a few sea-misty days on Chebeague Island, and there on a warped shelf sat a copy of Lynn Stegner’s “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn.” Water stains gave it the requisite air of something old, or at least wise. In truth, the book was suffused with the kind of old truths that draw me to this avocation or, if you prefer, this affliction. I opened the book at random to page 28 and, buried in a fat paragraph, found this delicious sentence:
“The snow underfoot was white-gray, and the blossoms overhead white-pink and pure, and between the two whites, connecting, were the dark and fluid striations of the tree limbs reaching out from the short, solid trunks.”
Of course I was hooked — you would be, too — by a book rooted in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont that I discovered in Maine and that included a barn and orchards and snow. What more could a reader want, in summertime or anytime?
Anatole France, who never visited New England but whose books surely are tucked away under an eave in a camp somewhere in the region, once said that the only books he had in his library were those “that other folks have lent me.” I won’t go that far. But many of the books I read over all these summers are ones that other folks have unknowingly lent to me.
David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.