Library Column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News


Eulogy for a Book Lover

February 16, 2019

by Chris Sokol

Last weekend a dear family friend passed away unexpectedly. Kurt had been a geologist for the Idaho Geological Survey and loved science. In his leisure time he devoured books, scientific journals, and audiobooks. We used to exchange reading recommendations. In tribute to Kurt and his wide-ranging, infectious curiosity about the world, I’d like to share with you some of his favorite books that I know about. Maybe his reading legacy will live on by sparking your own interest.

An avid birder and nature enthusiast along with his wife, Susan, Kurt was captivated by The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Before they moved from Moscow to Walla Walla, they enjoyed honing their bird identification skills with the library CDs Bird Songs of the Pacific States by Tomas Sander, Western Bird Songs by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and Birdsongs of the Pacific Northwest by Martyn Stewart. Kurt clued me in to the excellent book Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd. After moving to Walla Walla, that city’s public library became a favorite haunt of his.

Kurt grew up on Puget Sound. His early career, after serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was spent working as a geologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Somewhere along the line Kurt developed excellent sailing skills. A couple of times he and Susan leased a sailboat along with our family for a glorious week spent winding through the San Juan Islands. Not surprisingly, Kurt enjoyed fiction and nonfiction related to sailing and the open sea. But his reading interests ranged far and wide.

When I was selecting books for our library system as the Adult Services Librarian, I would often tell Kurt about books I thought he might like. He was so pleased to learn about the nonfiction World War II book Heart of Oak by Tristan Jones, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, and the Richard Bolitho naval history fiction series by Alexander Kent.  Kurt, in turn, told me about former Moscow resident Gregory Newell Smith’s collection of memoir essays The Solitude of the Open Sea, so I bought it for the library. A couple of years ago the Rocky Mountain Section of the Geological Society of America (GSA) held its annual meeting in Moscow. I tried in vain to order a field trip guide published for the conference, Exploring the Geology of the Inland Northwest (edited by Reed S. Lewis and Keegan L. Schmidt). Kurt volunteered to get a copy (thanks to his GSA membership) and it is now part of the library’s circulating collection.

Kurt was a long-time friend of, and colleague at the Survey with, my husband Loudon -- both great fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series of nautical historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, especially the downloadable audiobooks narrated by Simon Vance. Each listened to the whole series; later, one of them would pick up listening to the series yet another time, tell the other, and they’d be sharing the adventures all over again.

I asked Loudon to recall a few of the other books he and Kurt had enjoyed and discussed. Herman Wouk was a favorite author, with The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and its sequel War and Remembrance. Kurt loved the Soviet-era classic novel Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak; Loudon couldn’t get into the book. It took some time for Loudon to convince Kurt to listen to the Horatio Hornblower audiobook series by C.S. Forester but he finally came around to enjoying them. Not long ago Kurt had recommended Jack London: an American Life by Earle Labor and now it’s on Loudon’s list. Other beloved books they shared include The Vikings: a History by Robert Ferguson; Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim; The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander; and the classic three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion by William Manchester.

With Kurt as my inspiration, I’ve placed a Valnet catalog hold on the new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by geology professor Marcia Bjornerud. I’ll miss exchanging book recommendations with him but I treasure what he was able to pass along to us. I hope this incomplete depiction of Kurt’s rich reading life may stir someone to pick up a book and read. 

Chris Sokol is director of the Latah County Library District.