The first book I distinctly remember reading from cover to cover was “Maniac Magee.” Sure, I had read children’s tales and other “books” with really big font from by the time I turned toddler, but Jerry Spinelli’s 1990 masterpiece was my first “big boy” book.
While I won’t spoil things for any of our youth (or adults, frankly) who’ve yet to read it, “Maniac Magee” is a heartwarming book that explores real-world issues of racism, poverty and homelessness. When it comes to modern American literature, I’d put Maniac up against most other protagonists in terms of heroism and morality. The way he defied the odds, shrugged away stereotypes and came out on top, despite facing a truly unfortunate set of socioeconomic challenges starting at age 3 — well, to say that was admirable is only scratching the surface.
I grew up very poor in a small community in the upper portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan. For me, it was a life surrounded by farmland where 95 percent or more of the population was white. Honestly, aside from the “stories” I’d heard either from family or on the TV, the outside world for me was pretty much an unimaginable thing.
So my eyes were really opened after finishing “Maniac Magee,” because it was the earliest I can remember (I’m guessing I was 8 or 9) actually learning something outside of memorizing long-division techniques and how to spell words. This was a life lesson about how the world revolved around me and how to act within it, and the conclusions I made 20 years ago were the basis for how my street smarts would evolve into adolescence and, eventually, adulthood.
The point is I learned all of this and got my first taste of life outside my little mid-Michigan bubble from a book. I turned the pages, read the words, developed thoughts and played out scenarios in my head based on the imagery I was able to consume. It wasn’t long before I was doing the same for “Where the Red Fern Grows” and, on a sillier scale, the “Goosebumps” series. Soon it morphed into legit novels, and I was flying through John Grisham and Stephen King novels like candy.
I was hooked on reading, and I still am, although I’ll admit my novels have been replaced by reading news stories, letters to the editor and, well, we’ll call them endless strings of “feedback emails.” Still, I’ll never forget Maniac Magee and his ability to transform me to a fictional town in a fictional time that dealt with not-so-fictional themes.
So last week, when I got a few phone calls and emails from students at Truckee High School telling me they were working on a fundraiser to save the Bookshelf store in Truckee, it made me upset.
I consider myself an “old-schooler with skills.” I’m on Facebook just about every day. I tweet, I share photos on Instagram, and I’m privy to countless other social media and digital thingamabobs. Kindles, iPads, Reddit, Pinterest, Yelp! — you name it, I probably know it.
Yet, I love flipping through magazines and newspapers. I enjoy that deep musty smell of an old paperback book that’s sat dormant for weeks. I like, as they say, “the feel of the paper in my hands” when reading something.
Bookstores and video stores across the nation are closing due to the exploding digital age; just look at the recent news surrounding Blockbuster’s demise. So it’s not like I should be surprised.
Still, it’s a bitter pill to swallow to think that we as a Tahoe/Truckee society that prides ourself on “being local” can’t pull it together to keep our region’s last remaining bookstore alive. And I’ll admit — I haven’t bought a new book in years, so when I say “we,” I also include “me.”
Online this week, you’ll read a story about the Bookshelf and the local effort to save it. In it, people are encouraged to donate, buy a book and/or spread the word about the store. I plan on doing all three of those things. And my second order of business after this column? Ordering a new copy of “Maniac Magee” so I can relive my very first literary inspiration.
If Maniac could overcome those tremendous odds, well, I’ve got to believe bookstores themselves have a chance, too.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; his column appears every other Wednesday in the Sun. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan