Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Jack's Gold

Jack London climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Oakland Public Library with his mother's library card in hand. He barely weighed a thing, and his curly brown hair was as tussled as the first ten years of his life.

The boy wasn't sure what to expect from the librarian at the top of the stairs. Rules of the library stated that patrons must be at least fourteen to borrow books, and even then you were supposed to have an adult sponsor.

London found the printed catalog of books, and after scouring the titles he selected one and approached the librarian's desk. With eyes downcast he requested the book.

Luckily for London this librarian was no Chimera, no three-headed, fire-breathing monster with goat legs and a snake's tail. She was Ina Coolbrith, a published poet.


Coolbrith fetched the book on Pizarro from the closed stacks and brought it back to her desk.
She didn't rebuke him for being too young to check out books. She didn't scold him for having a library card or for coming in without his parents. She didn't lecture him about taking the borrowed book to Lake Merritt or on a tramp in the East Bay hills where the book could get ruined. Instead, she paid him a compliment.

Coolbrith must have seen something of herself in the boy. She had fallen in love with poetry at age eleven when she came to California in 1853. She read Shakespeare and Lord Byron on the Overland Trail from slim volumes taken from her stepfather's law library. She knew the thrill of reading books considered too advanced for children. Her first novel was The Red Revenge, which she read “surreptitiously and chiefly by moonlight.”

Coolbrith stamped the book about the conquistador and told London he had made a fine choice. He would remember the moment for the rest of his life, and told her so twenty years later:
"The old Oakland Library days! Do you know, you were the first one who ever complimented me on my choice of reading matter. Nobody at home bothered their heads over what I read. I was an eager, thirsty, hungry little kid — and one day, at the library, I drew out a volume on Pizzaro in Peru (I was ten years old). You got the book & stamped it for me. And as you handed it to me you praised me for reading books of that nature. Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me."

The boy took the book home, and soon returned for more. Coolbrith recommended the complete collection of Tobias George Smollet, a Scottish poet and author of picaresque adventure novels. London asked for more and she brought him Horatio Alger and Washington Irving.

Her encouragement wasn't preferential. She didn't know that he would come to pen Call of the Wild or become the first author to earn a million dollars. She encouraged many children who came into the library, including Isadora Duncan and hundreds of less famous young patrons who would come to recognize Ina’s guidance.

For the rest of her life, Coolbrith received notes from strangers who thanked her for helping them at the Oakland Public Library. 

I will be speaking about Jack London and Ina Coolbrith at Jack London State Park on Saturday, August 25, from 2 to 4 pm and at the 2016 Jack London Society Symposium in Napa, CA, September 15-18.

Read the article in Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Photos of Jack London and Ina Coolbrith courtesy of the Oakland Public Library.