Friday, November 7, 2008
Rube Allyn’s Dictionary of Fishes was the first book with which I fell head over heels in love.
I discovered it at the same time I discovered a passion for fishing in 1956. As a curious first-grader, I was determined to learn the names of all the pan-sized fish I caught a few blocks away from home in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Allyn’s humble paperback, despite the crude drawings and fanciful text, became at least one barefoot Florida boy’s Bible.
In 2004, I wrote a column about my favorite Florida books. Dictionary of Fishes was the guilty pleasure on a list with a dozen serious offerings that included Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Eventually I took my book list on the road and lectured in Florida cities south and north. At virtually every stop someone with graying hair would stand, stare me balefully in the eye and ask, “So where’s The Lion’s Paw?”
“Never heard of it.”
My interrogators were always too polite to declare: “And you call yourself an expert on Florida books?”
Someone finally lent me a worn-out edition. A novel for older children, The Lion’s Paw, set in Florida, hooked me like a hungry kingfish. A day or so after turning the last enchanting page, I received an e-mail from the kindly person in North Florida who had lent me her copy. She wanted it back, tomorrow if not today.
The Lion’s Paw no longer was in print. Readers lucky enough to have a copy hated to let it leave their sight for even a few days.
Bookfinder.com, I discovered, ranked it as the most requested out-of-print children’s book in the United States. When I looked, the going price for a nice copy with dust jacket on another popular used book site was $700.
I’m no millionaire. So I dreamed about a bedroom nightstand that held not only Dictionary of Fishes but a mint copy of The Lion’s Paw. In the dream I have a flashlight handy for reading under the covers.