The Book That Changed My Life

John Balaban

Poet John Balaban participated in a week long residency at Lenox Hill Settlement House as part of the foundations' Settlement House Program. John Balaban has been a shortlisted National Book Award Poetry Finalist in 1974 for After Our War and again in 1997 for Locusts on the Edge of Summer: New & Selected Poems.

Poet John Balaban participated in a week long residency at Lenox Hill Settlement House as part of the foundations' Settlement House Program.

James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific

I grew up in a rough housing project outside of Philadelphia. This was the 1950's. I don't think we had a tv at the time. There was nothing like a local swimming pool, or organized sports. Kids were just let out of school to spend the summer roaming in packs. If we wanted to play baseball, we would flatten the tall weeds in the field behind the project. When I was about 12, bored and fidgety as the summer wore on, I was allowed to walk the four miles to the nearest public library, the Union Library, built during the Civil War and looking very Southern and classical with its huge porch and Corinthian columns. I remember the screech of its long screen door, the damp cool air as one stepped inside, the musty smell of the books, and the small, round woman at her desk facing the doors.

At first, she was skeptical. But it turned out that the only people from our project who had taken out books before were my older sisters, and they had returned them, so I was allowed to take out one, me, a sweaty little boy, but just one book, as an experiment. If that first book wasn't Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, it was this book that struck me that first summer of reading, opening up a world beyond my tiny world. I was deliriously excited by my adventures in the South Pacific, but when I returned the book two days later, the librarian thought I hadn't read it.

"Didn't you like it?" she asked. And then I started to tell her about it.

Soon I could take out six books at a time, and she no longer kept an eye on me as I spent hours combing the shelves, picking out books, although once or twice she took away a book as too adult for me. Once I found a book that made no sense at all and took it her and she told me that these were the poems of Horace and that I could read them if I learned Latin. Years later I did just that. I think my abiding love of books began in the cool dark quiet of the Union Library, with its the big shady elms outside, and its providential librarian, my first guide to books and their wonderful emancipation.

Some forty years later, as director of a creative writing program to which Michener had given a large endowment, I visited him at his St. Petersburg home, along with my Dean and department chairman. After our visit, we had a half-a-day to kill, so the three of us chartered a boat and went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. As the boat pulled away from shore, we were talking about Michener. Then in his 80s, he was incredibly sharp and engaging. As a young man, he had taught history at Harvard; later, he had run for the Senate. He had been advisor to several Presidents and he still kept a close watch on contemporary politics. By this time, he and his wife Mari had given away something like $80 million dollars to various universities. Ours was just one of them. So we were still commenting on our visit when the charter captain cut the engine and leaned down from the upper deck to ask, "You guys talking about James Michener, the writer? You mean I might have had James A. Michener on my boat?" Then he launched into descriptions of Michener's books and why he liked them. He had read just about everything Michener had written. Like me and, I suppose, a lot of other people, he seen his first glimpses of other worlds through the lens of Michener's prose.


John Balaban