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The word that is heard perishes, but the letter that is written remains.

April 17, 2011

One of the things that distressed me in the course of selling my effects was how little value many people now place on books.  This was certainly not a new revelation to me; I have been acutely aware of this for a very long time.  But it still mystifies me to a degree.

All my life books have played a major role.  I cannot even estimate how many I have read, but it is most certainly thousands. Books have been my friends and companions.  Their authors lay open their minds and their souls to me.  They carried me through space to all heaven and earth, and through time to past, present and future.

Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life. 

~Jesse Lee Bennett

I have long assumed that my predisposition toward reading as a major pursuit is somewhat rooted in my nearsightedness, recognized early but not corrected until I was in the fifth grade.  I was always assigned a seat at the front of the classroom, but even from there it was difficult to make out what was on the chalkboard.  A book was far more manageable.  I was hopeless at things like sports; you can’t catch a ball if you can’t see it coming.  Therefore of necessity I made my world out of what was close at hand.  Books were ideal.

My love affair with books began very early.  Built into either side of the brick fireplace that occupied an entire wall of the living room of my childhood home were shelves filled with encyclopedia and other books.  I had two older sisters under whose tutelage I learned to read before starting school.  They impressed upon me that no matter what my interest, there were books that would address it.  At age four my thirst for learning led to my sneaking away from home to go to the one-room schoolhouse across the road from our farm.  Frequent repeat performances led to an accord between the kindly teacher, Miss Martin, and my mother to allow me to attend whenever I wished.  When our little school fell victim to consolidation, my formal education moved to the little prairie town nearest us.  My Aunt Ethel and Uncle Carm lived there, and a highlight of my visits with them (aside from the fact that they had one of the first televisions in the community) was that their next-door neighbour was the town librarian.  The library shared space with cacti and African violets in the veranda of her home.  Mrs. Stewart always welcomed me and I spend considerable time perusing the books that lined shelves and window sills.

In my mid elementary years one of my favorite spots in the school was the principal’s office.  Here were kept the reference volumes, in particular a massive dictionary and a huge atlas.  The principal allowed me to spend time poring over them whenever I had time.

On my weekly visits to my mother’s home in the city I was thrilled to find that once every two weeks a bookmobile parked very close to where we lived.  The librarian was very helpful, recommending books on the subjects in which I was interested, and suggesting others.  Whole new worlds opened up to me.  She would comment on how faithfully I visited, and noted I would always take home the maximum number of books allowed.  When I told her these were not adequate to satisfy my appetite, she bent the rules and allowed me to take as many books as I wanted.

Some of the money I earned from my paper route was always spent at the local drugstore to purchase comic books, but not the ones most of my friends would buy.  I preferred Classics Illustrated, adaptations of novels, plays and other literary works.  Jules Verne, Charles Dickens James Fenimore Cooper and others became favorites.  My mother would occasionally buy me books at the weekly auction she frequented.  I particularly prized her gift of a 40-volume set of the classics with red bindings and gilt titling on their black spines.  I know they cost her more than she could reasonably afford at the time.

At the end of my senior year I determined to hitchhike west, lugging with me my most prized possession, a large leather suitcase stuffed with my books.   I struggled mightily with my heavy load but there was no way I was leaving my friends behind.

When I married a regular budget item was always books.  I joined the Book of the Month Club and especially prized the bonus books, coffee table volumes on art and history and multi-volume works by great thinkers.  I purchased a wall-sized unit of legal bookcases, oak with glass doors that hinged upward and slid in above the books.  I soon outgrew it.  Subsequent houses always required the addition of tiers of bookshelves.

When I decided to attend university I was in heaven.  The enormous library with its seemingly unending shelves of profound books was a Godsend.  I could frequently be found amid the stacks with several volumes spread before me.

My growing interest in Christianity opened up a whole new genre.  My developing beliefs were influenced by a host of contemporary authors and later tempered by classical theological writings.  In keeping with my personality, I found some of the more radical thinkers irresistibly attractive.

When my daughter, the youngest of my four children, left home, I immediately set to work (much to her chagrin) to line the walls of what had been her room with bookshelves.  The only furniture in my library was a comfortable reading chair, a good reading lamp and a small side table for tea.   I absolutely concur with C.S. Lewis that, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”  My shelves were soon filled to overflowing.

Garage sales, book sales and auctions were always scoured for interesting reading.  Used bookshops, and as I grew to have more disposable income regular bookstores were frequent haunts.  When I moved to the Okanagan it was impossible to take all my books with me; I had to cull my collection severely.  However I soon had rebuilt my library, albeit not to nearly the size it had been.

My decision to go to Haiti necessitated letting go of nearly all of my books.  That in itself has not really bothered me, but having to donate most of them to thrift stores and the museum for their yearly book sale has.  As I wrote in opening, it is the fact that most people see no value in books that I find troubling.  Surely a book is worth more than a quarter.

The printed word is unlike any other form of media.  It allows one to cover the material at one’s own pace, pausing at one’s convenience, putting it aside and picking it up at will.  It allows one to ponder a point and to reread a passage to achieve greater clarity.  I am a marker of books.  It is my way of conversing with the author.  In response to those who would object to this habit I include here William Lyon Phelps’ 1933 speech on The Pleasure of Books.  It most eloquently captures many of my sentiments.

The habit of reading is one of the greatest resources of mankind; and we enjoy reading books that belong to us much more than if they are borrowed. A borrowed book is like a guest in the house; it must be treated with punctiliousness, with a certain considerate formality. You must see that it sustains no damage; it must not suffer while under your roof. You cannot leave it carelessly, you cannot mark it, you cannot turn down the pages, you cannot use it familiarly. And then, some day, although this is seldom done, you really ought to return it.

But your own books belong to you; you treat them with that affectionate intimacy that annihilates formality. Books are for use, not for show; you should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down. A good reason for marking favorite passages in books is that this practice enables you to remember more easily the significant sayings, to refer to them quickly, and then in later years, it is like visiting a forest where you once blazed a trail. You have the pleasure of going over the old ground, and recalling both the intellectual scenery and your own earlier self.

Everyone should begin collecting a private library in youth; the instinct of private property, which is fundamental in human beings, can here be cultivated with every advantage and no evils. One should have one’s own bookshelves, which should not have doors, glass windows, or keys; they should be free and accessible to the hand as well as to the eye. The best of mural decorations is books; they are more varied in color and appearance than any wallpaper, they are more attractive in design, and they have the prime advantage of being separate personalities, so that if you sit alone in the room in the firelight, you are surrounded with intimate friends. The knowledge that they are there in plain view is both stimulating and refreshing. You do not have to read them all. Most of my indoor life is spent in a room containing six thousand books; and I have a stock answer to the invariable question that comes from strangers. “Have you read all of these books?” “Some of them twice.” This reply is both true and unexpected.

There are of course no friends like living, breathing, corporeal men and women; my devotion to reading has never made me a recluse. How could it? Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. Literature is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part of personality. But book-friends have this advantage over living friends; you can enjoy the most truly aristocratic society in the world whenever you want it. The great dead are beyond our physical reach, and the great living are usually almost as inaccessible; as for our personal friends and acquaintances, we cannot always see them. Perchance they are asleep, or away on a journey. But in a private library, you can at any moment converse with Socrates or Shakespeare or Carlyle or Dumas or Dickens or Shaw or Barrie or Galsworthy. And there is no doubt that in these books you see these men at their best. They wrote for you. They “laid themselves out,” they did their ultimate best to entertain you, to make a favorable impression. You are necessary to them as an audience is to an actor; only instead of seeing them masked, you look into their innermost heart of heart.

It is interesting to note that I had written most of this post before I came across Phelps’ words.  To find his ideas and imagery so close to my own warmed by heart.  He is a kindred soul indeed.

I am appalled at what I believe are the results of the rejection of books and other reading material.  I open the newspaper and am often faced with articles in which the writers’ spelling, grammar and punctuation are atrocious.  Spell Check, though a useful tool, is limited in its capability; it cannot detect when one uses the wrong word.  Our language has been “dumbed down” to the point where many people are unable to express themselves clearly.   The advent of texting has further contributed to the problem.  Many people can no longer write a coherent letter to save their lives.

I distinctly remember a conversation with one of my daughter’s teachers.  It was parent-teacher day and I was viewing some of Meaghan’s work.  It stood out starkly to me that even though the teacher had given her very good marks and words of praise, the work was fraught with grammatical and spelling errors.   When I brought this to the teacher’s attention she told me that as long as the children had good ideas, those things were not of great importance.  My response was that even if people have outstanding ideas, if they are unable to convey those ideas with clarity they are of no use either to themselves or to others.

I am by no means a Luddite.  I love my laptop and I think Kindles are a great idea. They offer the great advantages of being both searchable and highly portable.  But given these technologies one is still working with the written word.  They are merely books in another form.  The Internet is like having all the libraries of the world at my fingertips.  Television on the other hand with its proclivity for sound bites inhibits analytical thought.

I know that many consider me a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to books.  But it is my firm conviction that the rejection of books contributes significantly to the dilution and demise of the written word.  The consequence is that we will all be losers.

As Augustine wrote, the world is a book.  While in Haiti it is my intention to immerse myself in its pages, to drink in all I can, to wrap myself in all it has to teach me, and to humbly convey to you as much as I am able.   Thank you for reading.

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