Uncle Bookworm

The first time we children heard of our Uncle Dick, he was described as a bookworm. The phrase, new to us, conjured up the vision of an earth- or slowworm , creeping and wriggling out from under an upturned stone. We had no desire to make his acquaintance. Must we really leave our country delights, even for one afternoon, to meet this town-dwelling insect uncle? He was a lonely man, our parents said, and our visit would cheer him.

He lived in a tree-lined terrace within sound of the university chimes. We rang his bell with shivering trepidation and waited, listening to its echoes. Losing courage, we were about to take to our heels when the door opened and there stood the Bookworm. ''So it's the three of you,'' he said abruptly. ''Come in.'' He was tall and lean, with a shock of wildly ruffled gray hair, and wore very thick spectacles. He peered down at my brother and sister and me with disconcerting sharpness. We were soon to realize that it was to see if we looked capable of appreciating, perhaps even sharing, his great passion in life.

''Come and see my treasure-trove,'' he said, leading us along a dark corridor. What did we expect? Some kind of Aladdin's Cave, certainly not a room so packed with books that it was almost impossible to move among the high-piled pyramids. Shelves covered every wall and a long ladder leaned against them, its rungs seeming to vanish off through the ceiling. Beyond the windows lay a garden where, on that late autumn afternoon, mists gathered among the blurred gold of chestnut leaves.

''Now,'' he said, fixing us more keenly than ever, ''what would you like to hear?''

We had no idea. We gaped at him. He climbed up the ladder, chose a volume, and, sitting high above us, he read: ''Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold. . . .'' He was like a sorcerer, casting an instant spell. Even then we had an inkling that those words of Keats would be the key to the travels we were about to begin.

After that first visit another followed, then another, until we were so familiar with our uncle that we ceased to find him odd and eccentric. He would meet us at the door, his hair on end, his eyes shining with the joy of some fresh discovery. ''Listen!'' He had been up all night, reading a newly discovered book. When did he ever sleep?

''Wait till you're ready for this one,'' was one of the phrases he often used. ''Can't we read it now?'' ''No, you'd only spoil it. Wait. Ripeness is all!'' We learned from him one of the secrets of reading, the need to choose the right moment of marvelous empathy between the reader and what is read, when a book becomes a companion for life.

One of our delights was being sent up the ladder to fetch him down a book. ''That one up there in the left-hand corner with green and gold binding.'' To climb up those rungs was like setting off on a mission to the stars.

Although the greatest distance our uncle covered was between his home and the university library, yet he had traveled further than anyone else we ever knew. What voyages we were to make with him, tramping like chelas with Kim's lama along the dusty roads of India, on the run over the Scottish moors with Davie Balfour and Alan Breck. We sailed to the Hebrides with Boswell and Dr. Johnson, to Treasure Island with Jim Hawkins, down the Mississippi with Huck Finn and Jim. We were to follow Ulysses across the Aegean, pursue Moby Dick with Captain Ahab, and jolt along the rough tracks of provincial Russia with Chichikov in his tarantass.

When he read aloud to us our uncle's voice had countless different tones, fierce and comical and tender by turn. He made us ache with laughter at Huck Finn, Mr. Polly, Mr. Pooter and Mr. Pickwick. We wept for David Copperfield, tyrannized by the brutal Mr. Murdstone, and grieved for Falstaff denied by Prince Hal - ''I know thee not, old man.''

With him we entered the vast universe of Shakespeare, the Human Comedy of Balzac, lived through war and peace with Tolstoy, felt that crinkling in the spine at certain poetry. Our uncle would drop his voice mysteriously: ''It is an Ancient Mariner and he stoppeth one of three . . . ,'' he read, or ''In Xanadu did Kubla Khan . . . . Daffodils that take the winds of March with beauty . . . . Darkling, I listen. . . .'' We did indeed listen, spellbound.

It was strange to look back on that first unwilling visit, our disinclination to enter the house of a bookworm, our murky image of a creeping insect. Later, when we came on Thomas Hardy's description of the game of dice between Wildeve and Diggory Venn, played by the light of glowworms on a foxglove leaf, our vision was changed for a more fitting one. Our uncle cast more light than a thousand glowworms.

During those blissful years much of our life centered round that book-filled room. From that wide world we looked out onto the garden where, in spring, thrushes sang among creamy chestnut candles, in autumn russet and gold leaves swirled past. Within was warmth, the smell of the Harris tweed jacket our uncle wore, of old leather bindings, of wood smoke from the fire where we ate slices of cherry cake.

Outside, the blue haze of evening gathered, lights went up along the tree-lined terrace. Was it time already to take the train back to the country? In the family our uncle was always spoken of as lonely. ''Lonely!'' he would exclaim, smiling and looking around his shelves. ''In this company!''

Each year he became more stooped, his nose closer to the page, almost rubbing it as he read, his eyes behind the thick glasses wearier but never less exultant. He had a way of handling a book, carefully and lovingly. ''Smell it!'' he said, sniffing at the pages as if absorbing its essence into the depths of his being.

The sound of his voice comes echoing back to us. ''The great shroud of the sea rolled on as it has rolled five thousand years,'' he would quote, or ''Just is the wheel, certain our deliverance, come!'' All our lives we would be marked by what we had learned from him in those impressionable years, when we made our first ascent of the ladder leading to the stars and into the realms of gold.

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