And a nutritious diet it was, for the mind and spirit. Along with milk and mashed vegetables (in my day, baby foods had not made their appearance) I, like most children, was fed Mother Goose and A is for Apple, B is for Ball. But because the book shelves in our parsonage home were at least as important as the pantry shelves, my taste for more mature reading was acquired right along with my taste for more sophisticated food. I suspect that too many children, suffering from intellectual malnutrition, regard worth-while books, not as delectable food, but as a horrid type of medicine.
Our small town, in a remote section of northern Maine, was the proud possessor of a library, thanks to the efforts of a circuit-riding minister whose vision was as wide as the country he traveled. The government of our town was that purest form of democracy, the town meeting. And I recall vividly the tall, gray-bearded, and somewhat frail figure, for he was then an old man, rising in his place on the floor of town meeting and pleading for funds for the library, which the citizens, out of equal respect for learning and the old minister, usually granted.
I remember, too, my first visit at age of 6 to the children's room of our library, where a starched and kindly librarian received my childish signature and helpfully suggested as my first borrowed book, Bea trix Potter's "Peter Rabbit." ...
What we growing children in the family could not read ourselves, Father read to us, if he regarded it suitable. And by "suitable" he did not mean of the proper "grade level" or based on a pedagogically contrived "core vocabulary." Big words did not bother Father, or his children. If we did not understand them, we nevertheless could hear and "feel" them as they rolled eloquently from Father's lips. . . .
Nor was poetry to hold any terrors for us in the years to come. We had been conditioned to it. Memory carries me back to the fascinating rhythm of the Battle of Blenheim, as Father used to recite it to us. The lines were music:
"And everybody praised the duke,
Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin."Why, that I cannot tell," said he,"But 'twas a famous victory."
Although quite unaware of it, I was getting a pleasant introduction to English history from this poetic conversation between Little Peterkiri and his grandfather. And the poet's cryptic comment on the tragic waste of war dawned upon me later, when I was ready for it.
One reason Johnny can't read is that Johnny has not been read to. Reading aloud within the family circle was once, when books were scarce and lighting poor, a tradition. . . . In our own home, we children, listening to Father read, received, in addition to an introduction to great minds and beautiful language, an emotional satisfaction guaranteed to keep the psychiatrist from the door in later life. We were surrounded at these times by warmth and security, and Father's voice flowed comfortably about us, contributing laughter, grandeur, and excitement.
His reading did far more for our minds and spirits than impersonal movies and television can ever do. We were not fed scientific and technical facts, for which, we admit, modern forms of communication serve as the almost perfect medium. We did not have plots acted out before our eyes, to be grasped without effort on our part. But we were acquiring a taste for discovering facts for ourselves and for gaining ideas through language, an essential and required art, even in the present highly technical day, but one which is being discouraged through visual education and mechanical forms of entertainment.
Having been read to, it followed normally and almost automatically, that we became good readers ourselves, and had in our early teens acquired a taste for the best in literature. . . .
Later, as the years bring responsibility and serious challenge, you have learned to turn to this same treasure house for wisdom, inspiration, comfort, and relaxation. You have come to agree with the poet who said,
When others fail him, the wise man looks To the sure companionship of books.
Because books became a part of my everyday life at an early age, I was happily prepared for my schoolbooks. I did not look upon them as instruments of torture or at best necessary accompaniments to getting through school. I was no more than an average student, but I opened each new book (and they were drab indeed to look at in those days) with anticipation. I did not look upon them as something to study, which would probably have rePelled me at the start, but as something to read. And the difference in that psychological approach is vast and important. Today, publishers spend appalling amounts of money, which the taxpayers underwrite, for color and design and illustrations that will, everybody hopes, inveigle pupils to read their textbooks with some degree of pleasure. Unfortunately, many of those pupils, if left to their own choices, would give books of any kind a wide berth. They expect of their textbooks nothing but boredom and difficulty.
No child prodigy, I was nonetheless neither bewildered nor aggrieved when a teacher first asked our class to look up words in a dictionary and facts in an encyclopedia. . . . And my brother and I had pored, fascinated, over those three- or four-layered colored illustrations that used to appear in home encyclopedias. Sometimes at mealtime, a name or term would arise that we children found unfamiliar. Father made a game of our going to the encyclopedia to find out what it meant.
Does that set of encyclopedias that some persuasive salesman talked you into buying serve your home as a false front for erudition, or do your children know from experience that here is the knowledge of the ages, available at their fingertips? The printed book is a sacred heritage, too precious to be taken carelessly for granted.
The diet of books on which our family thrived was fairly well balanced, as I recall. We had many bone-building proteins as well as savory sweets. I have mentioned specimens of both, and I am fascinated by the frequency with which I run into the subject matter of a favorite book of my childhood in the very different modern world in which I live. For example, in 1912, when the S. S. Titanic sank, a hastily put together book describing the ship and the tragedy appeared in my father's library. I am sure it was not literature, but from its graphic pages and photographs I learned for the first time about the appointments of an ocean liner. . . .
Once acquired, the taste for reading is never lost. Eventually I returned, to the new and often to the old books that had been my friends through the years, that seemed to have been written just for me. And, as in the case of a friend whom you have not seen for some time but with whom you can pick up almost where you left off, you go back to a cherished book and feel, with Jeremiah, that you have returned to the old paths and walk therein.
At one period of my life I visited on occasion a certain New England village. On each visit I went to the public library in the town and into the children's room, a particularly charming spot, to read again Emilie Poulsson's wonderful tribute to books that appears on a wall of that room:
Books are keys to wisdom's treasure; Books are gates to lands of pleasure; Books are paths that upward lead; Books are friends. Come, let us read.