It is said that if you were to line up every book in the main library in Oxford, England, end to end, they would extend the entire length of Great Britain. Established around 1096, Oxford is comprised of forty colleges and halls, each with it's own collection. With over 10 million volumes in it's main library, Oxford's central research library is the Bodleian, founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598 and opened in 1602. Housed on 117 miles (188 km) of shelving, it is the second-largest library in the UK, after the British Library. It is a legal deposit library, which means that it is entitled to request a free copy of every book published in the UK. As such, its collection is growing at a rate of over three miles (5 km) of shelving every year. A great town in which to browse, buy books or carry out research, the history that is found in this small area is remarkable. The collection of rare books and manuscripts is one of the most important in the entire world possibly rivaled only by the Vatican.
I don't remember a day that books did not play a significant role in my life. From the plastic picture and alphabet books of my early childhood to books of a more weighty variety, they have always been present. Hardly a meal went by at our house where Dad and Mom would not discuss authors, cover designs, fonts, publishers, and the marketing of books around the little kitchen table. I would share with them in the joy of a manuscript's acceptance and the disappointment of the rejection letter. Dad's extensive library provided research material for many reports and essays throughout school. In addition, he received about 40 magazines a month. US News and World Report, Time, Newsweek, Macleans, as well as religious periodicals and journals crammed his small office. Dad felt that it was important to know what was going on in the larger world. We may have been landlocked in a tiny town on the Canadian Prairies, but Dad's world view was global. He felt as a teacher, writer and a leader he owed it to his students and to himself to be informed. He did this with intention and passion. Discussions at our round table covered religion, politics, current and world events, culture, entertainment and sports.
When Cathy and I had our children, just like our parents had, we felt it important to read to them. This became a part of our nightly routine. Even after our kids could read for themselves, they still loved to snuggle up on the couch as one of us would read to them. There is something about being read to that is comforting and speaks of stability.
Call me crazy, but given the choice between a fine meal and a fine book, I would probably choose the book. Nine out of ten times I would rather read the book than watch the movie that it was based on. Nothing against movies, as I have the utmost respect for well crafted films and the process by which they are made. Books ask questions, provide answers, transport you to another place, make you laugh or cry. Shelves of books beckon me to pick them up and explore the contents beneath their covers. I love the feel of the paper, a well designed dust jacket, and a quality binding. Somehow an e-book, kindle or ipad is just not the same, although it will be interesting to see how these technologies will impact reading and learning. Much of my work is with songwriters, and I often tell them, "Good readers make good writers". I often wonder about the back story of those books. What motivated the authors to write them? What sacrifices were made? What risks were taken? Why does one book become a best seller when a book on a similar topic, perhaps even better written, bombs?
It was a chilly fall day in 1970 and that Monday morning when I arrived at school there was a distinct buzz in the air. Dwight Jack had learned a new word that weekend and was eager to share his newfound knowledge with some of the boys in our class. The word in question was quite simple really, but when you think about it, carried a fair amount of weight. The little three letter word was . . . bra. The abbreviation of the formal word brassiere. More importantly, Dwight had also learned the definition. It seems that the item in question was a piece of woman's clothing which housed, in the words of the biblical writer Solomon, the "two fawns, twins of the gazelle".
Don't think for a second that old blues singers like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hawkins or the new crop of rappers like Jay Z, Missy Elliot, P Diddy or Dr. Dre are the only ones to have come up with code names and slang terms for special parts of the body. A cursory read of the holy scriptures would indicate that the writers of old were on to this technique a very long time ago. Solomon was particularly adept at his use of the creative double entendre. A more careful study and examination will clearly show why young Jewish boys were not allowed to read the Song of Solomon until they were at least thirteen years old.
We looked at Dwight to see if he was pulling our leg. He seemed quite serious, which was unusual for Dwight. I think it was Phil Callaway who was pretty sure that the word in question didn't really exist, and if it did, surely it couldn't mean that? Phil had been diligently studying three letter words and had moved on to the four letter variety. Intrigued, we all agreed that further research was in order. Class was about to begin and we would have to wait until recess to pick up on our discussion.
As the bell rang for recess, like any good team of researchers would do, we hurried to the library. The library was housed in a separate room in the school which was just down the hallway from our grade four classroom. Presided over by Miss Verla Gale, the rules of no talking and orderly behavior were strictly enforced. Toward the back of the room, in the far corner, were kept the dictionaries, encyclopedias and other research materials. We made our way to the corner and proceeded with our research project. It was decided that we should divide and conquer and so a group of us went for the Webster's Dictionary and the other group turned to the World Book. Some of the boys had difficulty finding the B's, but eventually we all got on the same page.
Lo and behold, there it was, large as life; bra (bra) n., complete with a brief definition and a black and white illustration which looked more like a medieval slingshot of some type than an undergarment. Amidst some giggling and gawking the definition was read in hushed tones to the group. Dwight beamed as if to say, "told you so" and Phil was able to add another word to his vocabulary. Raydean Keller, Steve Porr, Stan Kirk and myself were left wondering what this new information meant and exactly how it applied to us. Miss Gale must have wondered why in the world this group of grade four boys had taken such a keen interest in higher learning. If only she had known, she would have gotten out her large black felt pen.
There were lots of books in our little grade school library that had been the recipient of Miss Gale's felt pen. Words like gee, gosh, golly and darn were all dutifully blacked out, less they corrupt our young, impressionable minds. Not to be easily fooled, we found that we could hold the books up to the light or to the window and make out what the word had been by the difference in the shade of blacks. Miss Gale must have been exposed to a fair amount of corruption in her day, judging by the frequency of these marks in the volumes that lined the shelves. If there were any illustrations, of human anatomy for instance, that had been decided were unacceptable, Miss Gale, like a renaissance artist of old, being ordered by the pope to put clothes on some of the world's great artwork, would draw in the equivalent of a black fig leaf where she deemed it appropriate. Miss Verla Gale had actually taught my Mom back in the day and I thought she was absolutely ancient!
By Grade four, I was a voracious reader and had devoured all of the Thornton W. Burgess, Danny Orlis, and Sugar Creek Gang books in our small library. A particular favorite of mine was the Silver Chief series, in which an RCMP officer owned a wolf, Siberian husky cross and together they performed heroic feats in the wild Canadian north. I could just imagine myself riding along on that dog sled, tracking and bringing in the fugitives to justice.
Wishing to expand my own horizons and not wanting be held captive to the censorship whims of an octogenarian librarian, I had discovered that for 50 cents, I could purchase a library card at the Town Library. This opened up an entirely new world of reading opportunities. It was like discovering a special secret, a ticket if you will, to the future. I wasn't very eager to tell my friends, because they might go there and check out the latest Hardy Boy book that I had been waiting all week to get. Saturday afternoon would come and I would get on my bike and head to the library. I loved the smell of the library. A little bit dusty, musty and old, the library, with it's solid oak table and chairs and rows of shelves always greeted me with open arms as I bounded up the stairs ready to fill my bicycle basket with the coming week's entertainment.
I read every Hardy Boy, Tom Swift, Sr., and Tom Swift, Jr. book in the Three Hills Library. Having run out of those types of books, I moved on to the entire Nancy Drew series. Mrs. Helton and Mrs. Keenan were the quiet, gracious librarians who were always so helpful in locating books, answering questions and encouraging me to read. They would stamp the little card in the back of the book and send me on my way. I loved sports and between hockey, soccer, softball and reading, I had little time left for homework or piano lessons. Without the distraction of a television in the house, there was more time for reading. I always had a book in my hand or one close by. After Mom would turn off the light in our room at night, out would come the flashlight and the reading would continue. No wonder my eyes are shot!
I discovered that Dwight Jack also loved the Hardy Boy books and we both wanted to read the latest release. The problem was that there was only one copy. So, in the spirit of generous community and sharing, it was decided that we would read the book together at the same time. Sort of a one for two type of deal. In grade four I sat behind Dwight over against the wall. By holding the book forward and with Dwight looking to the side, we could both manage to see the pages. Off to an early start, we were actually working on perfecting our method before class began. As our teacher, Mr. Kowalsky, opened our day with a prayer, I accidentally dropped the book. Crash! Onto the floor it went. There were a few giggles from the girls and lots of heads turning and eyes opening to see what the commotion was about. The interruption prompted Mr. Kowlasky to wind up his prayer in short order and come over to see what exactly was causing all the fuss. Walking down the aisle and spying the blue cover of the book lying on the floor, it didn't take long for him to size up the situation. He asked that I give him the book which he would keep for a set amount of time. Dwight and I were sent to back of the classroom to stand in shame with our faces towards the bulletin board, where I promptly began to count how many pin holes I could see without moving my head. I think I was able to convince Mr. Kowalsky to give the book back before it was due and the fines would begin.
One Sunday morning, as we were getting ready for church, I was trying to finish a book. My brother Dave kept bugging me to hurry and I was ignoring him. Maybe he was threatening to take away my book. I don't really remember. Exasperated, I finally said, "Listen hear you little son of a b%&*". He looked at me as if to say, "What language are you speaking?". My father, who had no problem understanding what language I was speaking, heard me quite clearly from the kitchen where he was having his breakfast. Appearing at our bedroom door he said, "Stevie, what did I just hear you say?" I repeated what I had said. By the look on Dad's face, I realized that was not the smartest thing I had done that day and that I was not in his good books at that moment in time. "Son, do you have any idea what that means?" "No", I said, "I don't". "Where did you hear that?", he continued. I explained that I had just read it in one of my new acquisitions from the Three Hills Library. I think in that instant a light went on in Dad's head and he realized that I had moved on from Joe and Frank Hardy. I, of course, didn't realize that this term was not very respectful to my younger brother let alone my dear mother. Dad, in very sober tones, laid out for me a very clear definition that even I could understand. He then asked that I never use that term in his house again.
Prairie had a very strict policy on language and more than one student was trotted down the hall to have their mouths washed out with soap, the theory being that it would wash the dirty words away. To avoid trips down the hall accompanied by the teacher to meet Mr Ivory, we had our own version of a sanitized language. Sick, shoot, frick, crap, dang, and son of a tea biscuit peppered the halls and playgrounds of our school. We even paid special tribute to staff members Fritz Honecker and Hector Hannah. Fritz and Hec . . . tor were added to our vocabulary.
Words were very important around Prairie. What was said. How it was said. What was not said. People had mouths . . . they also had ears. Reporting on these violations was not seen by the authorities as squealing. You were simply helping the other person to stay accountable. We also learned that "real swears" could often be accompanied by hand signals which seemed to reinforce the delivery of said word.
We would take great delight in cornering an unsuspecting student and asking them to insert a finger in each side of their mouth, stretching it in a big horizontal oval and say the word "puck" When it turned out that pronouncing the P was nearly impossible and it invariably came out sounding like F, we would gloat that we had "caught" that person saying a bad word. Childish, I know, but it reinforces how important and scandalous words were.
Recently there has been much in the news about countries like China and North Korea trying to control the internet in their specific countries. It plays out well in the press, but I highly doubt that the leaders of China and Korea are really that interested in keeping their citizens from seeing naked people engaging in all manner of creative calisthenics on computer screens. No matter how much they insist that they don't want the corruption of the west to have a negative impact on "their" people, it is really about control of the many by the few. Have you read their history lately? Not exactly modicums of moral high ground are they?
No, the real reason is that as people learn about freedom and what it means, they realize what they are missing and what their lives could become. They then begin to demand change. The governments of these countries are all about control and are desperately trying to prevent their people from having access to information that is not spun their way. The cat is out of the bag, the horse is out of the barn, the train has left the station. Information is now global and people worldwide are finding ways of accessing that information. Computers, PDA's, cell phones and whatever gadget is next are all being utilized to carry and distribute information. Is there bad information out there? Yes. Is there material that probably should not be there? Absolutely! This is the price of freedom. Freedom that allows people to make their own decision, to have choices. To worship and believe how they see fit. To receive an education. To make something better for themselves and their families and build for future generations. To have hope. Hope is such a big word isn't it?
Does there need to be regulation and protection for children and for those who are disenfranchised and the victims of another's power? Of course there does. How should that be implemented? I have no idea, but I am hopeful that this will be figured out. We know that both the church and the government have controlled, manipulated, censored and withheld plenty of information over the years. These practices are getting harder and harder to carry out. This is something we can be grateful for.
I have been reading several books on poverty and economics and highly recommend that anyone with an interest in this subject read: Banker To The Poor: Micro Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus. Another good read is Jeffrey Sachs excellent book: The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities For Our Time. I am more convinced than ever that the end of poverty will begin in part with literacy. Should we stop clothing the needy and feeding the hungry and just buy them books? Of course not!, but lets support those who are doing what they can to teach the world's less fortunate to read.
Diane Sawyer was featured in a special 20/20 documentary some time ago on the problem of illiteracy in Kentucky and other parts of the U.S. called, "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains." If you can find it on line, please watch it. Some of the rural school's library budgets for new books are less than a couple of rounds of golf and a good meal!
There are many adults in Canada and the US that can't read. - The numbers are shocking! If you know one of these people, please lovingly encourage them to read. There are wonderful adult learning programs that will help them. Start simply with a book that is in an area of interest to them. If they are a golfer, get them a golf book. If they are a car nut or fashion fan, start them there. Don't try and get them reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn or Fyodor Dostoevsky right off the start.
We have all heard the saying, "Knowledge is power". I would like to propose that knowledge is freedom. Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword? Another popular saying is, "What you don't know can't hurt you". The reality is that we live in a day where what you don't know could very well hurt you. As another biblical author has written and was often quoted by the Reverend Martin Luther King, "You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free." I would suggest that learning to read is the beginning of that truth.
Who is to say that a little boy in Africa won't discover the cure for cancer, because he learns to read. Maybe it will be that little girl tending goats in Afghanistan that will invent a super food that will solve the world's hunger problem, because she learned to read. It just might be that child in Kentucky who, because of a parent who was concerned enough that they should learn to read, will discover the cure for AIDS.
I am so thankful and blessed to have learned to read . . . bad words and all.
The next time you are tempted to reach for the remote or the mouse . . . buy the book!
Note: My loving wife says I have gone to preaching! If I lost you in the last three pages, I'm sorry!
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.