“A house without books is like a room without windows.”
I get passionate about a blog topic sometimes and am unaware of how I may sound. My last post provides an example. I addressed my readers with an assumption: You are “very intelligent, very well-educated, and inclined to be a critical, analytical thinker.” Did it sound as though I believe a college degree is the baseline for being well-educated? If so, I need to correct that impression.
My intention with the previous blog was to defend an education in the liberal arts, even though this may not provide a straight path to the high salary that seems lately to be the foremost goal of college students. As I later reviewed my own history of reading, I began minute by minute to realize all the ways in which books have enriched my life and how, on their own, they can turn virtually anyone into a well-educated person.
The love of books may typically be inherited, and it descends through both my parents’ family lines. My three siblings and I had access not only to the classics growing up but also to wonderful art through them. And in the case of one particular story that I may never have actually read, the art took over in providing me with some valuable advice.
I refer to a story in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which was illustrated by a wonderful artist named Louis Rhead. The title is”The Juniper Tree,” and the main character is an evil stepmother. She lures her stepdaughter into a room with a trunk full of apples and invites her to select one. When the stepdaughter leans over, the woman slams the lid shut and cuts off the girl’s head.
These fairy tales were indeed often grim, as though to inform young children that “Life is not going to be hunky-dory, so get ready.” In this case, however, the story was not written by the Brothers Grimm, but by me.
I discovered this through the development of this post. I have the set of books, first published in 1918, in which this story appeared. However, the volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is mysteriously absent. I proceeded to search the internet and found not only the story but also one of the illustrations I remember. The authentic story differs in that the wicked stepmother actually decapitates her stepson with the trunk lid–and then makes him into soup. The girl in the story is unwittingly used by her mother to try to hide the crime.
So why did I rewrite it? Well, I think I may have had this intuitive sense as a child that I was “different” in ways that were a little troubling to my mother. This is not uncommon. Children who are a bit unusual often imagine that they are actually adopted and no one has gotten around to telling them that yet. In this case, my revision may have provided guidance that was very valuable over time: “Be good and be careful.”
My mother was probably the parent primarily responsible for the love of reading my siblings and I all developed. When we were still young, we spent many enchanted summer hours sitting or lying on our struggling lawn in El Paso as she read to us. She was very good at this, and I remember pleading with her to go on even after she was hoarse.
I don’t know how many years we did this, but the experience is huge in my memory. When I asked my siblings which books they remember best, Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott came up, Ojibway Drums by Marian Magoon, and the verses of A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six, especially the ones about Winnie the Pooh. In my case, the trip down the Mississippi River on a raft with Huckleberry Finn and Jim was probably my most memorable backyard experience.
So now let’s go to the role of books in sexual education. The groundwork was laid for me in my early teens by my older sister. I was on a trip with my family, and I was reading a book when I asked for an explanation about what was going on in a particular scene. The response began like this: “You know that thing boys use to go to the bathroom with on a picnic? Well . . .” I probably sat there looking a little blank. As the years advanced, however, I learned an awful lot more through reading.
Nothing was off-limits in my parents’ library, which contained some awfully good–and occasionally sexually explicit–literature. Wow, was that different from the picnic tool explanation. I learned about romantic love, physical passion, and choreography, I guess you would say. And my enchantment with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in my all-time historical fiction favorite, Katherine by Anya Seton, was timeless. I reread the book last year and enjoyed it as much as the first time, although I discovered certain character flaws in the Duke that I must have overlooked. I have forgiven him.
The wonder is that great writers can enormously expand life itself. Through their work, we can inhabit different minds and bodies; live anytime and anywhere throughout history; experience adventures, courage, cowardice, love, loss, and even insanity and death as we sit safely in a chair. What we learn may enlarge our sense of who we are, what is possible for us. My mother could be a good example of how this works.
She was only 42 when my father died unexpectedly. He was highly intelligent, imaginative, and entertaining. When he died, a light went out of our lives, and suddenly my mother was facing alone the job of parenting us and providing an education for all four high-achievers.
College hadn’t been an option when my mother graduated valedictorian from her high school in Louisiana, and she had only recently learned how to drive. After considering her options, including moving back to the South to be near family, she decided to go to secretarial school and get her first job. Soon she was employed at the central office of the school district.
Six years later, she had cancer, and her surgeon told me that he expected her to live no more than two years. She proceeded to live for 23. When she retired, she was head of the payroll department in her school district where she had managed a staff of seven. She had also educated all three daughters at Stanford University and seen my brother graduate with a degree in veterinary medicine from Texas A&M University.
When I think back on her life, it seems to me that her love of books played an important role in all she accomplished. One she read near the end of her life is a good example. She told me about it in the middle of the night as we both sat reading in an outpatient clinic to pass the time while she underwent antibiotic IV therapy. I think the book was an autobiography by an Asian woman who had been imprisoned for political reasons. To help pass the time and to beautify her cell, day after day she plastered the walls white with wet toilet paper.
What wonderful company the individuals in both fiction and nonfiction are over the course of a well-read life. They become companions of mind and spirit, guiding, inspiring, and sometimes fortifying us to deal with the challenges of our one life. Whether this kind of education leads to financial abundance is immaterial. It is priceless.