For the past two years my husband and I have been rehabbing his childhood home, an old Minnetrista farmhouse. The last inhabitant, my late brother-in-law, left us a garage full of tools, enough silverware for a state dinner, and books — lots and lots of books.
Bruce was whip-smart, obstinate and cranky. He could cook and build things and captain a seagoing vessel. To say he marched to his own drummer is an understatement, as his book collection shows. A few months ago, on summer hiatus from my book club, I decided to mine the "Library of Bruce" for my own reading pleasure, and took a closer look at the shelves.
First off: I was hard-pressed to find books he might have purchased new. The oldest volume, a 1913 copy of "Historic Adventures" by Rupert S. Holland, is a kind of boys'-life companion with chapters on Lewis and Clark, John Brown at Harpers Ferry and "How the Mormons Came to Settle Utah." A first printing of Thorne Smith's 1942 "The Passionate Witch," about a man who rescues a beautiful (and naked) enchantress from a burning hotel, has delightfully lascivious line drawings (well, for 1942). Even the "new" books have a dog-eared, garage-sale quality.
A good number in the stacks came from libraries shedding their collections, the plastic covers and Dewey Decimal numbers intact; I happily delved into Richard Russo's "Everybody's Fool," curiously dropped from Hennepin County Library's circulation only months after its 2016 publication. Now, the Bogart biography from the library of Gwinnett County, Georgia? How Bruce came to possess it, I cannot say.
No surprise, though, that he owned a Santa Monica library castoff of John Jennings' "The Salem Frigate," likely a memento from his time sailing off the California coast. His fascination with all things maritime also led him to "Sea Rescue" by Gardner Soule and the "Bounty" trilogy (news to me that there was more than one chapter in the classic story). Alas, the sailing manuals, maps and boatbuilding treatises, some seawater-damaged, didn't survive the culling process.
As further testament to an adventurous and wandering soul, there's "Blue Highways," "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and Jack London's "Yukon Stories" (which I can picture Bruce reading during the years he spent in Alaska — or maybe reading to stir memories of his years in Alaska). But his Minnesota roots are there, too — Ole Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth," Jon Hassler's "The Love Hunter," the inevitable "Main Street."
Did I say cranky? He was also funny. Bruce's (sometimes warped) sense of humor ranged from Bob Hope's corny "My Life in Jokes" to David Sedaris' sardonic "Naked," with a history of "The Simpsons" thrown in for good measure.
And then there are the classics from which an English teacher could craft a yearslong curriculum: Dickens. Melville. Milton. Twain. Whitman. Kipling. Defoe. Crane. Conrad. Stevenson. Verne. Hardy. Hawthorne. A beautifully bound three-volume set of "The Divine Comedy." And the more modern "classics": Cheever, Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson.
Inside a few volumes, I found inscriptions from folks who I'm sure were strangers to Bruce (certainly to me). In the flyleaf of Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety," Lara wrote to Ruthann: "You'll laugh, you'll cry, the prose will disarm you." I didn't laugh or cry, but the prose did disarm me. I wonder if Stegner's words had the same effect on Bruce.
Indeed, I have a lot of questions I'd ask him if he were still here. Which book would he take with him to sea, or to a desert island? But the most burning one: Why did he own FOUR copies of John Irving's "The Cider House Rules"?
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer at the Star Tribune.