by Amy Alexander
My childhood’s one-room library was housed beside a fire department in a town too small for hiding. I was an alone child much of the time, mostly by my choice, or at least that of my busy, private parents.
Children with lots of solitude tend to turn to the scribbles of distant people who have seen the world and had the courage to commit their observations to print. And so books became my companions.
And that library, so small, with its blonde--bland--exterior bricks and slender steps, became, to me, a stately castle that changed, depending on my mood and current reading selection, from a light and glass dream Xanadu, where heroes brought their ladies, to a lair where vampires grew and gnawed on mud.
Of all the books at the municipal library of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, there was one series that changed the trajectory of my life and gave my strange mind, with so much time on its hands, something to clasp onto and remember.
I can still recall, clearly, that summer afternoon when I was going into in fourth grade, the best time for aimless library foraging, when I found my fingers on the crisp spines of a collection of encyclopedias called “Man, Myth & Magic.”
The publication of “Man, Myth & Magic” started as a magazine project 1970, with Richard Cavendish as editor and Brian Innes as art director. Over a few years, they worked with a prestigious editorial board that included scholars from Oxford, St. Thomas’ Hospital, the University of Chicago and the British Museum, who, in turn, worked with more than two hundred authors to compile, first, a catalog of magazines and then, finally, a 24 volume set of wondrous, folklorist source material.
An interesting side note: Brian Innes, the art director for the project, was a drummer for The Temperance Seven, a British band from the 1960’s that performed 1920’s style jazz. Another note: one member of the board served as occultist and magician Aleister Crowley’s literary executor.
The art of Pieter Brueghel, the Elder, with his painted panorama of skeletal figures and Tower of Babel, worldwide burial rituals, legends of friendly whales, the life of Buddha, Camelot and its denizens, uses of candles, the Tarot, Casanova, cats, paintings on cave walls, the psychic Edgar Cayce, uses of water in rituals, how to become a werewolf, wild forests, snow in central Europe, all of the descriptions known to date of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, what women mean, the poetry of Yeats, the difference between sorcery and witchcraft, what makes a person a zealot, and all of the reasons why people go to war tumbled out of the pages of Man, Myth & Magic. My young mind was enthralled and in love with each and every one of the unusual and random topics offered up by Cavendish and his crew.
There was a sneaking element to my trove of books. Since they could not be checked out of the library and contained more than a few dozen pages of nudity and descriptions of things that I was not supposed to wonder about, I could not sit in the sunny middle of the library, with the other elementary school readers, and pore over Man, Myth & Magic. Instead, I had to hope that one of the tables dark and deep within the stacks would be empty, and that I could cradle the books with my body well enough to obscure my interest in witches and warriors.
A few years ago, as proof that I definitely married the right guy, my husband gifted me with an entire set of Man, Myth & Magic. The box was hefty, bearing a hasty, hand-lettered address. I ripped at the packing tape, at that Ebay-guaranteed treasure chest, and felt the Proustian swell in my chest as I smelled the old paper and ink. I could hardly fathom having all 24 volumes in my home to read at my pace, and without hiding.
Sometimes, all I have to do to feel inspired is glance at the yellow and black ink of its hardbound face. More than once, it has served a valuable resource for journalistic and academic questions, as well as a starting point for poetry and essays. More than anything, though, is the power it has to help me remember that scrawny, tawny girl in the tiny, lonely library and her realization that the sidewalk outside was just a starting point for an adventure that could last a lifetime, and beyond. I still tell that girl: You have to be brave and willing to read the books you want to cradle your body around. You have to continue through forests when the desire to hide descends.
Amy Alexander is a writer and artist from Baton Rouge whose work has appeared most recently in Anti-Heroin Chic, Cease, Cows, The Mojave Heart Review, and Dirty Paws Review. She holds a master's degree in folklore from the University of Louisiana. Her chapbook, "The Legend of the Kettle Daughter," is forthcoming in April of 2019 from Hedgehog Poetry Press. Follow her on Twitter @iriemom.