Recently, in the parking lot of a well-known retail giant, I watched a family returning to their waiting SUV. The father and mother were each busy talking on their respective cell phones (and obviously NOT to each other), while several paces away from them strode teen-age “Junior” busily (and expertly) texting on his “hand-held device”. In an age overflowing with technology of all kinds we refer to as “social media”, to say nothing of “game boards” and 50 inch “flat screens” , I sometimes wonder if we are in the process of loosing something important. There comes to mind a piece of verse ascribed to Strickland Gillian which takes me back to my own (long-ago?) youth:
You may have tangible wealth untold, Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be. I had a father who read to me.
I grew up in a family that had no living grandfather but in which a great, great uncle was the resident “patriarch”; a gentleman in a formal vest and string tie with whom our town’s very name was eponymous and who had lived when Abraham Lincoln was the President. His ample lap was my personal university-of-learning, and along with numerous other contributions, he read to me. Daily, prodigiously, and with a devotion that was more than merely avuncular. Together with two older brothers who were a decade ahead of me in age and who were also avid readers, I found myself surrounded by books and people who loved them.
I learned that the pages of a book and the very typeface they contained had a certain touch and smell and feel, that the words coming from the reader’s lips could be seen as well as heard; that the very shape of their mouth held the secrets of word sounds and pronunciation just as facial expressions conveyed changing and recognizable levels of feelings and emotions. Commas, colons, quotation marks and periods became signposts on a roadmap; old friends helping me find my way. Every book was magical to me, even before I was an accomplished reader. A favorite evening card game in our family was “Authors”, a competitive contest in which players had to match up the titles of books with the correct author, and when I was dealt a card that read “William Makepeace Thackeray”, I could easily produce answers like “Vanity Fair”, “Pendenis” and “The History of Henry Esmond”, or I would know that titles like “Ivanhoe” or “Lady of the Lake” would give away the author as Sir Walter Scott.
My first real favorites had to do with the great outdoors and stories of the sea, so Robert Lewis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Jack London were my heroes, as was the noted wildlife writer Ernest Thompson Seton. Charles Nordhoff and his writing partner James Norman Hall gave us the trilogy “Mutiny on the Bounty”, Men Against the Sea” and “Pitcairn’s Island” which I consumed hungrily as well as “Falcons of France” and “The High Barbaree”.
I gained much of my early love for dogs in part from neighboring New Jersey author and columnist Albert Payson Terhune and his books “Lad: A Dog”, “Buff: A Collie”, and “Lad of Sunnybank”.
The Depression years drastically cut into the book business in America, but the advent of so-called “pulp” magazines became a refuge for authors who might otherwise have remained unpublished and a reading public deprived of wonderful stories. Our household profited from this editorial phenomenon, and so I was treated to the works of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey, their mind-bending words falling like prey into my possession third-hand after my brothers had thrown them aside. And before my reading skills measured up, I didn’t lack for other family members to read to me from those serated-edge mini-books with titles like “Flying Aces”, “Black Mask”, “The Phantom Detective” or the “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine”. (One publisher alone put out 42 titles each month while another distributed a total of more than 300 in that era which stretched from the 1930s to the 1950s.)
As I measure the wonders of the modern days in which I live and the mind-boggling inventory of electronic and satellite-driven conveniences that increasing render book stores and libraries almost obsolete, I feel that I am rich, because I had a family that read to me.
Keeping a generational family tradition alive, Al reads to one of his Great-Grand-children today.