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Good Weird Hunting

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At work, I'm known as the Seeker of Strange, the Finder of Fun Things, the Miner of Delight. I sift through the rocks of the Internet universe to unearth gems I think people will like, and share them through Twitter and our news app Reverb.

But I haven't always had this uncanny ability to discover some tidbit that makes people say, "Who knew?" Like all children, I struggled through a sea of information. Luckily though I had a guide.

Until I was about 9, I didn't really like to read. I preferred picture books and my illustrated children's encyclopedia over "real" books. My father, who worked in Manhattan near a Barnes & Noble, would try to encourage me by bringing home heavy duty fairy tales --­ the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen --­ but they were too dense, and gruesome, for me then.

Dad had always been bookish himself. He was a scientist but had always dreamed of being a writer. My mother liked to talk about how in graduate school, instead of studying, he whiled away the hours reading novels. It was only when my mother came along that he got serious.

Then one night my father brought home a different kind of book. Phone book-sized with a blue cover, it was called the Big Book of Amazing Facts.

This appealed to me immediately. It was like an encyclopedia but only the interesting parts, accompanied by amusing illustrations about why the Leaning Tower of Pisa leans, why pirates wear earrings, and why some people talk to their plants.

Some of the facts were truly astonishing. Did I know that birds might have come from dinosaurs? How could this be? Didn't dinosaurs, who resembled giant lizards, relate to reptiles? But no, it made sense: scales equaled feathers, dinosaur legs more resembled those of a chicken than an iguana.

My mind was blown, and I had to share it with everyone. And since this was before the Internet, I had only one way: write an essay and ask to read it in front of my entire class.

My teacher was thrilled. Here I was doing work that wasn't even assigned! But as I read, my classmates' eyes glazed over. What was the matter with them? Didn't they realize this was earth­shattering information? But either they already knew, or something was wrong with me.

Still, that didn't stop me. Soon I was devouring every middle grade and YA book there was, and my father fed my habit, bringing home the slim paperbacks I often plowed through cover­-to-cover instead of doing my homework, in a fit of irony that I'm sure wasn't lost on my mother.

As I got older, I found my own books. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Lois Duncan, S.E. Hinton. Then, perhaps more inappropriately, VC Andrews, Colleen McCullough, and Jackie Collins. During summer vacation, I read them one after the other, like a chain smoker.

When I was in high school, my father got a new job in a town close to ours. His commutes were shorter but gone were his lunchtime visits to the bookstore. No matter: armed with tutoring money, I browsed the B. Dalton shelves at the mall, where I discovered even more writers.

To my parents' consternation, in college I majored in English with no intention of becoming a lawyer. My father shouldn't have been surprised. It was all his fault I became first a bibliomaniac, then a writer.

By the time I reached adulthood, Dad was rarely finding things for me to read. While he occasionally mailed me an article torn out from some magazine -- a story about Sylvia Beach and how she started Shakespeare and Company, another about the burning of the Library of Alexandria -- more often than not I was the one finding books for him.

A creature of habit, my father read the same books over and over -- Chinese adventure stories mostly ­­-- until the covers fell apart. I thought he needed to branch out.

He loved the TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, so I got him the book and its sequels, which he loved. I also got him James Herriot's biography (written by his son), which he loved less.

Then one Christmas I got my father James Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. Honestly, it was a last minute purchase. I saw it displayed prominently at Border's, and thought, History plus China, that's my dad!

He was hooked. He talked about the book all the time and tried to look for more like it. But he didn't have much luck. Searching for "oracle bones" on Amazon, what he found was either too kooky (a self­-published book of poems) or too academic.

By then, I had been traversing the wilds of the Internet for years. Putting my hunting skills to work, I looked instead for books about modern Chinese history and foreigners, and discovered Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China. Another jackpot. My father proceeded to gobble up all books by Simon Winchester, even the ones not about China.

In recent years, old age has suddenly caught up with my dad. He's frailer now and needs a cane. His daily three-mile hikes have been replaced by shorter strolls, and gone are the days of going into Manhattan to wander bookstores, not only because now so many bookstores have disappeared.

But he still reads -- online, on his Kindle, and "analog." I still get him books I think he might like, and occasionally, when I search for stories to share with the world at large, I find something for my dad, something that he didn't even know he wanted, and for a while, he's surprised and delighted, just as I was the first time I opened that big book of amazing facts.

 
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