Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Joy of Reading

This morning the children and I read a brief biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was born in 1867 and died ninety years later in 1957. I liked the final paragraphs of the reading because the reader is asked to imagine the changes that she saw in the world during her lifetime. As a child, she moved three times with her family in a vain attempt to outrun the westward expansion of the late 19th century. From Wisconsin to Minnesota and beyond they traveled by “prairie schooner,” a rather quaint way to say, “covered wagon.” But by the end of her lifetime, she had the ability to cover the same territory in one-tenth the time in and airplane. She lived through two world wars and saw the beginning of the Korean War. She saw the advent of the automobile, the transcontinental train, and the airplane. She saw a lot. But in the midst of all of that, she looked back with great fondness to the earliest years of her life, to the quiet times of family togetherness, to the hard times of life on the open prairie, and to the ways in which her family met the challenges of their day. When her younger sister Mary lost her sight because of scarlet fever, Laura became Mary’s eyes. She described all that she saw for her sister, and it is believed that this practice is what led to Laura’s wonderfully detailed accounts in the famed Little House on the Prairieseries.

As Laura grew up, she saw her world change in unimaginable ways. Certainly she must have loved the ease of using a washing machine and going to the supermarket for flour and meat when compared to the all-day chore of washing clothes by hand and growing one’s own wheat to make bread while plucking the feathers off a chicken a few hours before dinner. The children and I tried to imagine life with an outhouse, with a horse drawn carriage, and beating our clothing against rocks on the back lawn. Daniel covered his face with his hands and shook his head with every gory detail of our imaginary life on the prairie.

Not only did we give thanks for the machines we take so much for granted, but also we gave thanks for the foresight of people like Laura Ingalls Wilder who had the forethought to write down their life stories. Without her enchanting tales of her harrowing adventures, and even the sad stories of the death of loved ones, we would have no idea of what our nation’s pioneers endured as they cut their way through the woods, forged rivers, and climbed the rocky mountains of this magnificent continent. What if she hadn’t written her very thinly disguised autobiography in the form of The Little House series? What if Anne Frank had not penned her diary as the soldiers of Hitler’s Nazi regiments bore down on her city? What if Booker T. Washington had never learned to read or write? What if Jane Austen had heeded the warnings of doom and gloom that condemned educated and published women to the deepest pits of hell and ostracism in English society? What if Alice Walker had never written The Color Purple or Amy Tan had never described the inner workings of The Joy Luck Club? Who else but Harper Lee could have described the racism and hope that prevailed in the South in the turn of the last century in such profound, child-like simplicity? Would we ever know the mindset of young boys whose lives included secrets, thievery, slavery, and mystery if Mark Twain hadn’t penned The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?

Whenever I reflect on the greatest joys of my life, books are always on the list. Sometimes I mention specific books by name. Most times I just write “books” because it is too difficult to name the ones I like best, the ones that have influenced me most. Every once in a while I want to reread some of the old favorites. I want to retouch their sacred pages, reread my notes in the margin, try to figure out why I underlined certain passages or put my telltale “check +” next to others. But as much as I want to revisit favorite volumes, I usually don’t do so because there are so many others that I have yet to get to. I love the way one author describes her addiction to books: she says that she buys them, she borrows them from the library, and she makes piles of books around her bed, around her desk, anywhere there is floor space. She flips through them. She sniffs them. She sleeps with them in her bed with her. (I don’t think Steve would like that idea too much.) She simply cannot be very far away from her books at any time. Sounds like my kind of woman. Sounds a lot like me. Who can afford to reread anything when the bookstores keep tempting me with new morsels to savor?

With a mug of hot tea, some fresh baked cookies, a candle burning, and my feet up on the coffee table in the living room, I settle into a snug spot on my big red couch for a good long read. I have a quote clipped out of a local woman’s magazine (Skirt!) that says, “I am never happier than when I am alone in a foreign city.” That quote resonates with me to my very core. However, my days of solo travel in foreign cities are limited to only about ten per year. The other 355 are measured in literary travel to foreign cities, to centuries gone by, and to lifetimes yet to be.

At the moment, Kristiana and I are reading the fictional diary of a young girl in New York City whose father is in the Navy at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Letters from Dad are rare. Taunting by the popular girls at school is regular. The life-story of the German mother and daughter pair that live in the same boarding house is yet to be told. I’d better go catch up to Kristiana; we are reading separate copies of the book, and she said she’s a few months ahead of me in Madeline’s story.

At the top of tonight’s gratitude list will be “the invention of the printing press” and the subsequent decision to publish books in paperback form. “The library” will be on the list as well. How can anyone deny that there is a merciful and generous God when an endless supply of books is available free of charge to anyone with an address?

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