Into the big, wide world

Reading is such an improbable idea -- a miracle, really. Yet simple squiggles on a page, arranged just so, can convey ideas that change the way we think or introduce to us characters we love for a lifetime. In celebration of reading -- and of this weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books -- we asked four readers (who also happen to be writers) to celebrate books that mattered in their lives.

The book was called "The Royal Road to Romance," and to a pre-adolescent boy with a fear of anything girlish, it sounded an awful lot like a bodice-ripper. Even if it wasn't a steamy love story, it certainly didn't seem like the kind of book any self-respecting apprentice to the world of manhood should be caught dead reading.

It didn't help that it belonged to my grandmother. The books she tended to settle into her chair with after work usually had covers depicting pastoral scenes or women with parasols, books that were far too genteel for someone drawn to baseball and playing war games in the deep woods behind the house.

At my grandmother's urging, though, I cracked open "The Royal Road to Romance" and found that it was the perfect book for a kid with wanderlust. "Romance" here was a synonym for adventure, and in retrospect the travel memoir — one of several Richard Halliburton titles on her shelf — was my introduction to just how big and varied the world is, and to the reality that the past is a tangible place if you have the right stories and imagination.

I quickly read all of Halliburton's books, happily manipulated by a storyteller who practiced the ultimate in immersion journalism. Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, the strait separating Europe from Asia; so Halliburton swam it too. Another time Halliburton dived deeply into a Yucatan lake (one in which Mayas legendarily sacrificed virgins) and almost drowned in a hidden tangle of underwater growth. In a piece of delightfully absurd humor, Halliburton also swam the length of the Panama Canal, dutifully paying his 35-cent toll — assessed, as I recall, by tonnage.

To be closer to the Greek gods (those myths I knew), Halliburton spent a night atop Mt. Olympus and survived an unexpected and terrifying thunderstorm that he ascribed to Zeus' anger at an interloper.

As a schoolboy, Halliburton wrote, he kept a photo of the Matterhorn on his wall, and so as an adult he climbed it, learning in the process that, unlike the easily summited Olympus, there was more to mountain climbing than simply walking uphill (the lesson was not lost on me that boyhood dreams could inspire adult pursuits). And Halliburton slept in the Taj Mahal — primarily because it was forbidden. That was a double win, introducing me to that fabulous mausoleum and the story behind it while appealing to my ingrained rebellious streak.

Then there was Timbuktu, the ancient Saharan crossroad Halliburton visited just because he liked the sound of the name (for that same reason, I hope to get there someday too). But more impressive was how he got there, persuading a pilot to ferry him around the world in a two-seat open-cockpit biplane they called "The Flying Carpet."

People inhabited those visited places as well. Halliburton was not ahead of his time when it came to racial or cultural equality, and some of his assumptions came off as insensitive, even racist. But his observations also were infused with a sense of the common humanity among the peoples of the world.

Here is what "The Royal Road to Romance" and Halliburton's other books conveyed to the heart and mind of a small boy: That there was far more to the world than I could see. That the past was real and had great influence on the present. And that with enough drive, pluck and imagination, it was possible to swim between continents just for the hell of it, to prank an entire canal and to marry poetry and myth with personal adventure.

Not to mention that old lesson about not telling a book by its cover.

Scott Martelle, a Times editorial writer, is the author most recently of "The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones."

Twitter: @smartelle


Diana Wagman: Entering a room, opening a mind

Amy Wilentz: Childhood, made perfect on the page

Doyle McManus: Reading between the lines in Washington

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