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I have always had a love for books and reading, and  have devoted many hours of my life to satisfying that particular craving for them. I’m not certain when I first discovered the joys of reading but I have been told that I picked up the ability to read earlier than most of my peers and I can remember when I was in the second grade being sent to the third grade class for reading time. The ability to read so well more than made up for my abysmal mathematical abilities, or at least in my mind, I thought it balanced out pretty well. I loved books and loved reading them and in the elementary school years, it was my only guaranteed “A” when report cards came out. Everything else was a gamble.
Growing up in an age just before cable TV became the norm, we had only local stations on television comprised of the three major networks, PBS and a few UHF channels out of Atlanta. The choice of programming was nothing like the hundreds of channels we have today on cable and satellite. Moreover, there were no VCR tapes or DVD movies then so books were really the only other avenue of stimulating the mind and satisfying the need to be entertained. Books were the original TiVo because like a DVR, you could pause, rewind, reread, fast forward or start over anytime you wanted to. Some books were read and then given away or returned to the library, enjoyable but not meriting a second look; others were “keepers”, the ones you read, put on the shelf and take down again later to read again over and over.
My parents bought for me some of the classic books for children like “Huckleberry Finn”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Heidi”, and “The Wind in the Willows”, all hardbound, illustrated and in their original text. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were another favorite. Through her writings, you were painted a detailed portrait of frontier life in the mid 19th century, during the last decades of westward expansion when families would pack up everything they owned and travel by horse and wagon westward across the vast and dangerous prairies. Her ability to write drew you into the story and made you feel  like a spectator in a journey that stretched across the frontiers of a very young country. I can remember as a child reading these and other books long after bedtime and reading by the light of a street lamp that was just outside my window until I finally grew tired enough to sleep. This undoubtedly led to my need for glasses in the fourth grade.
If the local library had given out frequent flyer miles, I would have had enough to get to China and back with all the trips I made by bicycle, its basket loaded down with not only my books but those my mother had checked out as well. The local town librarian was the stereotypical spinster who ruled the library with a kind but firm hand; both children and adults respectfully observed the rules of library etiquette when in her presence. Always helpful, you could ask her where a certain book was and she would always show you but only after she made it a point to demonstrate the card catalog system and how it would point you in the right direction. Understanding this arcane system was not easy and I always endured the demonstration knowing that she would eventually lead me right to the book I wanted to get. Today, the local library is five times larger and books are found via a computer terminal, easily located or you can download them from the internet. To me, this is good in a pinch but will never replace the feel of an authentic, bound book in your hands.
Time at my grandmother’s house exposed me to many more books for she had quite a collection herself, some of them first editions of some pretty well-known books. “Gone with the Wind” and “Roots” were devoured when I was only 12 years old and were the longest books I had ever read up to that time. Two years later, required summer reading for school included what became my favorite book of all time, Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a book that I have since reread four times. This book, more than any other, exposed me to the fluid writings of southern authors, who could paint with words a picture of place that I could relate to, with similarities much like those of the small Georgia town in which I was raised. Complete with colorful town characters, old homes with large porches that friends and families gathered on, the predominance of the church and socially accepted behaviors of the time, both good and bad. This book spoke to the inner southerner inside of me while calling to light the attitudes of a time when racial equality was nonexistent. This disparity existed not only between the educated ruling class and the hardworking minorities, but between the minorities and the poor, illiterate “white trash” that is still very much a part of our society today. “Mockingbird” held all of this up to the light, waging a battle between good and evil, justice and injustice, ignorance and illumination. Atticus Finch, the town lawyer fighting this injustice is one of my heroes of literature and my family even has a cat named after him. Books like this one opens the mind while engaging the spirit.
I could write a complete book review on “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt, a true murder mystery story that took place in Savannah in the ‘70’s and written from a northern writer’s perspective of his first exposure to the culture of the Deep South. This was literally a book I found on a coffee table that my mother had borrowed from a friend and she had to take it back the next day. I read one chapter, was hooked and stayed up all night to read the entire volume. This in turn inspired me to want to see the place Berendt has described so well, the city where it had all taken place. Just weeks later, I made my first trip to Savannah and came to know the most beautiful city in Georgia. Books not only can transport your mind to places you have never been but can actually push you to go there in person. Had I not read that book, I doubt I would have ever had any desire to go to Savannah, even though it’s in my own state. The very first pictures I have of my wife and I together were taken in Savannah a year before we married, on a whirlwind morning-to-night day trip we made there. Had I not read that book, our first pictures would likely have been made elsewhere.
My son is six years old and already loves books even though he is just learning to read basic sentences. He is so impatient to read that he doesn’t want to learn how to do it; he just wants to do it now. He is getting there though, one word and one sentence at a time. I realize that the days of being able to spell a word as a way to communicate something to his mother without his knowledge are nearly over and we will have to resort to text messages over the cell phones to accomplish this in the very near future. With his considerable mathematical abilities, none of which he got from his father, I worry about whether he will catch the reading bug someday as I did, for reading will unlock his potential, open his mind to learning, reveal history to him and help him to find his place in the world…but I don’t think I have to worry too much. He will always be surrounded by books and he is a lot like me so I am certain that exposure and genetics will help him find his way to literary enlightenment…..after which, we can work on his musical abilities.
Reading opens doorways and books are the doorknobs that we grasp to open those doors. They can engage you, enlighten you and empower you with knowledge. They can briefly free your mind from the worries of the day or ignite the fires of productiveness. Each one is a window into the mind of another individual….the storyteller, the biographer, the historian, the expert and the hack, all of them…are brought to life in their pages. Each book can touch us in some way and leave us a different person from the one that it found opening its cover. With books, all things are possible and nothing is beyond our reach….so go find a good book, get a cup of fresh coffee and have a good read!