Robert Sibley got his start in journalism at the Whitehorse Star in the Yukon in 1977. He joined the Edmonton Journal in 1978. He worked there until 1986, when he moved to the Ottawa Citizen, where he has work since as a reporter, feature writer, opinion page editor, editorial writer, columnist and, now, senior writer. His bylined columns, book reviews and essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines across Canada and the United States. He also holds a PhD in political science from Carleton University where he is an adjunct professor.
He has won more than a dozen awards for his writing, including from the American Academy of Religion, the Religion Newswriters Association and the Canadian Association of Journalists, the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Society of American Travel Writers.
For example, in 2007, he earned the First Place award in opinion writing from the American Academy of Religion. His pilgrimage narrative The Way of Shikoku, which ran as an 11-part series in the Ottawa Citizen in 2005, won the Templeton Religion Story of the Year from the Religion Newswriters Association of America in 2006. His previous pilgrimage story from the Camino de Santiago, published as a nine-part series in the Ottawa Citizen in 2000, won the 2001 Cornell Award from Religion Newswriters Association and the 2001 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.
"Get your shoes on," my mother said. "We're going to the library."
It must have been a Saturday morning, sometime in the fall of 1958, as best I can recall. I can still picture my seven-year-old self sprawled on the living room floor of our house in northwest Calgary, surrounded by Dinky Toys and plastic cowboys and Indians all lined up for battle. The last thing I wanted to do was waste the day in a library. I had enough of that at Capital Hill Elementary.
But there was my mother, my sneakers and jacket in hand, intent on dragging me away from my imaginary wars because the latest school report card from my Grade 2 teacher said, "Robert needs to read more."
Within the hour I found myself in the hushed confines of the Calgary Public Library on 14th Avenue, just west of the then-brand new North Hill Shopping Centre. I was under orders to pick a book, any book, but I was not leaving without a book, and I was going to read that book or my father would hear about it. Or something like that.
I don't remember the library in any detail, but I still retain a sense of the surprise I felt at the sight of endless rows -- or so it seemed to my young eyes -- of books. Who knew there were so many books in the world? Who could read all of them? I even remember that smell-of-books atmosphere, that strangely poignant melange of dust, mustiness and, to my nose at least, dried grass. To encounter that smell in a library or bookstore all these years later is to recover a moment of childhood. Most of all, though, I remember my first library book: Kit Carson and the Wild Frontier by Ralph Moody. I can still visualize the lurid red-and-yellow cover: Carson clad in buckskin, musket in hand, hiding behind a boulder while two feathered Indians sneak past. (No doubt, my choice had something to do with my prevailing passion for cowboys and Indians.)
It was as if I had discovered a whole new world, or, more accurately, new worlds, and I've been ransacking libraries (and building my own library) ever since. First it was my father's collection of books from his boyhood -- everything from Zane Grey's The Last Trail to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Whenever we moved to some new town I latched onto the library as a kind of sanctuary. I recall hours spent in small-town libraries -- Inuvik, Fort Nelson, Red Deer -- reading the biographies of explorers and scientists. My paper route money provided my Hardy Boys collection and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series. When I was a little older I devoured Ian Fleming, Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean. By the time I hit high school I was ripe for the existential angst of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac's On the Road and Hemingway's Sun Also Rises. Albert Camus was my hero. In university, I fell in love with Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. John Fowles' The Magus eventually sent me to Europe looking for my own god game.
Books, it's fair to say, have been both a refuge and an inspiration. They provided an escape from small-town tedium. They filled me with a hunger for learning and travel. And to my mind that is the marvel of books -- how a collection of paper covered with ink marks can, with a modicum of mental effort and a place to be alone (a library), carry you to other worlds, open you to other lives, and gain you entry to every imaginable experience. It has been a long time since my original library epiphany, but I still occasionally catch myself wandering through the stacks of a library, awed at the notion that every book I see is the distillation of a particular mind, a compendium of the experiences, thoughts and feelings that some man or woman wanted to save from the ruins of time.
I know that sounds fanciful, but that doesn't make it less true. We write books, paint pictures and sculpt stone in a bid to save something of ourselves from disappearing forever. The poet Philip Larkin says it well: "I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt ... from oblivion ... I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of art." That's certainly one of my motives in writing for a living. It pays the bills, yes, but I also write in anticipation of my own disappearance. And now, as it happens, I have something a bit more enduring than a newspaper column to set against that disappearance -- a book of my own. (Yes, this column is an advertisement for myself, to borrow Norman Mailer's phrase.)
On Saturday, Nov. 1, Novalis Publishing will release A Rumour of God: Rekindling Belief in an Age of Disenchantment. Presumably, it will be in local bookstores a few days later. Here's how the cover blurb describes the book: "A Rumour of God explores a variety of 'ordinary' experiences -- home, place, solitude, wonder, walking and 'everyday epiphanies' -- to reveal to us the possibility of restoring the spiritual side of our lives." I could go on, but I wouldn't want to be immodest. Suffice to say, it feels to me like a modest miracle that ideas and experiences that once resided only in my mind are now contained in the ink marks on nearly 400 pages of paper, and will, I hope, find their way onto a library shelf where some reader will make those experiences his (or her) own. Of course, I owe it all to my mother. OK, that's a slight exaggeration. Still, looking back, I'm tempted to think my book is the long drawn-out product of my mother frog-marching me to the library all those years ago. That's why I've dedicated it to her.