Right now, I begin this article in a St. Louis Starbucks on 9/11 waiting to board a flight to Boston.
For the past few days, I’ve been immersed in another culture of learning. A lifelong learner? I’ll always beat that drum. The delicious surroundings gave me fuel for thought, and like everyone at this conference, I couldn’t imagine not reading, and writing. However, I thought more and recognized my sadness as I witness a corrosive unraveling around the art of both, especially reading.
Some might roar at me in disagreement. How can you say that? Many children attend college and pursue graduate degrees. They’re expected to learn, study, and learn. True! But I’m not focused on pursuing a college degree or reading the latest, trendy books, flavors of the month.
Please understand, as someone with a Master’s degree, I don’t dismiss these accomplishments. However, what concerns me is the erasure of the past, good, bad, and ugly, and the decrease in reading for pleasure unless it’s brief and reflects the politics of the present.
So to what am I referring?
1) Learning about the great people who wrote stories from long ago.
2) Reading long, thick books which transport someone to another place and time, offering sweet ideas fomented by fiction.
Let’s begin with learning about the classics. I don’t know if high school History and English still incorporate an understanding of the ancients. I hope so. To this day, Socrates’, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s wisdom transcend time and space. Their sagacious advice may have been limited by the era in which they lived. Yes, slavery existed and women’s rights were nonexistent, but their ability to think, encouraging their students to do the same, had no bounds.
I didn’t study the Classics in college, but I never forgot those lessons from fifty years ago. Also, I remember reading Antigone in my freshman year of high school and enrapturing myself in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Perhaps my Literature teacher’s passion came through. I cannot recall. What’s important about this? These lessons seared in my brain, embedding and, maybe, helping me in my ideas and desire to create and achieve.
Now, how about the modern classics assigned to us? Have they been replaced to appease loud voices shouting, let’s have thinkers who focus on the external versus the sacred soul deep in our core?
Are young people still assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? How about books from Herman Melville (tough reads), or John Steinbeck? What about Hemingway or Fitzgerald? I recall attending a school field trip in the early seventies to watch a movie based on our assigned reading of The Great Gatsby. If my memory serves me correctly, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, starring in the much-awaited film, graced the first cover of a new magazine. The title? People.
Now, full transparency. Not every classic appealed to me. I couldn’t stand Billy Budd, by Mr. Melville. My husband tried reading Moby Dick a few years ago. He couldn’t finish it.
I share this because sometimes we must receive life lessons, not always to our liking, preparing us for what’s ahead. By accepting, the building blocks of resiliency, tenacity, and character cement, providing us a bulwark for eventual, no one escapes, suffering in whatever form it appears.
What books stay close to my heart? Of Human Bondage, Cry the Beloved Country (I sobbed), and the beautiful classic, a favorite, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. These books, unique unto themselves, address human suffering, the unfairness of life, and lessons in navigating the treacherous path put forth. Because of this, many of us appreciate the liberties and freedoms gifted to us.
What else did those teachings do for me and others like me? They invited me to desire more learning and more reading. Yes, reading, sweet, slow, steady, delicious reading, some erudite books, but most were not.
I’ve discussed many treasured novels in other articles. What I didn’t include, were such books by Victoria Holt, On The Night of The Seventh Moon, a favorite of mine at age 16 or 17. Her books under the pseudonym, Phillipa Carr, brought us into the world of Henry the 8th and beyond. History, espionage, intrigue, and romance were some delights you inhaled.
I read Kathleen Woodiwess’ The Flame and the Flower, a big, lusty romance, from the early seventies that made one blush, but in this present-day-of-let-it-all-hang-out, a PG rating if one existed for books. Ms. Woodiwess paved the way for the historical romance fiction genre, now dominating much of women’s fiction. Yes, romance reading remains one of the most popular categories, with most books purchased by women over forty, especially Boomers. Yes, my generation understands the thrill of a good read.
How about Barbara Taylor Bradford’s trilogy beginning with A Woman of Substance? Full and fabulous! Twenty years ago, I discovered Penny Vincenzi, who died in the last decade. Like her British counterpart, Ms. Bradford, her beautiful books of historical fiction are difficult to match. Big and bold. After engulfing many of her others, I just finished her first, Old Sins, almost a thousand pages.
How many young people are reading thick, lush books? I doubt many. Their attention spans are shorter, and less is more for many of them. Because of the convenience that modernity offers, I understand the wish for quick, quick, quick, and we observe this in many realms of life. I’m thankful for those innovations. However, they don’t replace the beauty of reading and developing the skill that augments the imagination, improves vocabulary, and, my guess, increases creativity. Also, I read somewhere, this activity can help build empathy.
To read an entertaining book, can invite all of those elements. Little Women, a fiction, brought us to the nineteenth century with four distinct sisters who found meaning and purpose amid hardship. Many of us report that as our favorite childhood novel.
You bibliophiles recognize the tension of a page-turner. What’s next? What will happen? You are so engrossed in the story the hours pass. You ignore the surrounding voices.
The bottom line? You can’t close the book.
Who doesn’t want such an experience?
Young people should be encouraged to read. Their minds will expand, and they’ll never be bored if they develop an appreciation for this great gift.
If parents read to their children, tantalizing them by stopping at a certain section. It can render many things. By building tension, it will invite their imagination to explore the vast properties of their minds. Questions and ideas will arise, and who knows? Maybe a desire to increase their creativity. With older children, parents can alternate by reading a page, then having them take a turn.
Yes, everyone should savor the slow, steady, sweetness of reading. Who knows where it will bring you? Serving you and others begins the journey through reading.
If you’re not already there, try it. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll never reverse direction.