Before I entered first grade—at that time, Boonville, North Carolina, offered no kindergarten—adults kept telling me, “When you go to school, you’ll learn to read.”
When my busy mom found the time to read us bedtime stories, often from the Childcraft volumes we owned, I always felt as if there was a particular magic in books, and was eager to explore the world of words and stories.
When Mom picked me up at the end of my first day of school, I was mostly silent on the short drive home. As I got out of the car, Mom said, “You seem upset, Jeff.”
“They didn’t teach us to read!” I shouted, nearly bursting into tears.
Soon, of course, Mrs. Whisnut introduced us to the world of Dick and Jane, Sally and Spot, and I became a lifelong bibliophile, an ardent lover of books.
Good News in a Gloomy Time
Though the daily headlines these days often tumble some of us into dark moods, rays of sunshine do break through the black clouds. Recently, a reader sent me the results of a survey conducted by StorageCafe looking into hobbies and leisure activities taken up in our time of pandemic and quarantine. Gardening, cooking, exercise, and learning new skills like candle-making or calligraphy all made the list, but the great news for book lovers is that the number of people turning to books for pleasure and relief has shot way up.
Writer Mirela Mohan reports that “reading for leisure ranked third in people’s preferences with 27% of respondents claiming they plan to spend approximately 105 minutes daily on average reading a book.”
This increase is good news for our republic for several reasons. So many of us acquire our political and cultural information from television’s mass media, where truth and objectivity are sometimes in short supply. From these commentators, we rarely hear the stories of political corruption told, for instance, in Peter Schweizer’s “Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite.” Reading books such as this one makes for more informed voters.
Reading history and biographies can also strengthen our patriotic spirit. Right now, I am caught up in David Rubenstein’s “The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians,” in which Rubenstein interviews such great biographers as David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Robert Caro on past American presidents and other leaders. These lively interviews tell us much about the men and women who helped shape our nation.
Good literature also has an effect on us and so on our country. At their best, novels, stories, plays, and poetry allow us to learn life lessons without ever leaving our living room sofa. We can immerse ourselves in the psychological agonies of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” and so learn the consequences of great wrongs without committing those wrongs ourselves. Young women can step into the shoes of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and receive lessons in love, commitment, and matrimony.
In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” we explore from the comfort of our den a communist gulag, which should stiffen our resolve to fight against any government creating such a brutal and oppressive system.
Then, there are the pure and simple joys derived from reading. For me, few sights are more glorious than watching someone, especially a young person, utterly absorbed by a book. Though most customers in my local coffee shop are picking away on their electronic devices, as I am doing while writing these words, some sit over their beverages entranced by words on paper, oblivious to the music and conversations around them.
All book lovers know this feeling. We are physically present in the coffee shop, the library, or at home, but mentally and emotionally we are removed from these places. No—we are instead riding with Dave Robicheaux as he tears along Louisiana highways tracking down a killer, we are walking with Frodo and Sam on their quest to destroy the Ring of Power, we stand beside Scarlett O’Hara as she tries to save her plantation and family after the Civil War.
In this sense, books differ radically from movies. I love movies, but in the theater or on our televisions, we are watching the action as outsiders. The power of film to move us from laughter to tears, to inspire us, to entertain us, is extraordinary, but we are always watchers of the actors and the story.
With books, we become participants. We can imagine ourselves as Jim Hawkins battling against Long John Silver and his band of mutineers in “Treasure Island,” or we can get inside the skin of the narrator desperate to escape his pursuers in Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male.”
Paper and Print
Many today go to their tablets or other electronic devices, and read e-books. The advantages here are that readers can carry libraries in their satchels or purses, pay less for the electronic book, and reduce the number of bookcases in a small apartment.
But some of us, including myself, much prefer a physical book, a tangible object to hold in hand, marking favorite pages with bits of paper and passages with pencil. We open a new book in the store or library, and the scent of fresh print is like an exotic perfume. We pick a novel from the shelves of our used bookstore, scan the timeworn pages, and delight in reading the occasional notes made by some previous reader—“Right on!” “I disagree 100 percent”—or the inscriptions often found on the first blank page, such as “To Bill, whose love puts me over the moon, Brenda” and “To my daughter, the sweetest girl in the world, Happy Birthday, Love Mom.”
Moreover, for those of us who spend so much time staring at a computer at work or school, a book brings a welcome break from the screen. We replace the cold plastic of a keyboard with paper, and instead of striking those keys with our fingertips or reading an online essay by means of a cursor, we leisurely turn the pages of a novel or a collection of essays.
Books About Books
Most inveterate readers treasure those books introducing us to authors and stories. We open these collections of reviews and reading suggestions, and feel as if we have stumbled across a pirate’s chest of gold doubloons and shining rubies.
In my home library are several such books. Nick Hornsby’s “Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books” contains scores of his reviews for “The Believer.” Here are long, funny, quirky, and always engaging columns touting not only certain books, but also making the case slantwise for reading itself.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell’s “The Leader’s Bookshelf” is a compilation of literature recommended by more than 200 four-star military officers. The choices range from Douglas Southall Freeman’s three-volume “Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command” to Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic “Ender’s Game.” Stavridis and Ancell also look at what younger military leaders are reading and give advice on how to build a personal library.
James Mustich’s “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List” contains authors long familiar to me—Dickens, Hemingway, Shelby Foote, Anne Tyler—but also scores of unfamiliar writers such as Tijs Goldschmidt, Lucy Grealy, and Christopher Hibbert. Every time I open this book, the truth of the adage “Too many books, too little time” smacks me upside the head.
Let me end by lifting my glass to all of you readers out there. May you live long, and fill your house and your mind with books, books, and more books.
As for those not in the habit of reading, let me encourage you to give it a shot. Awaiting you are stories that allow you to time-travel into the past or to the future, that give you deep insights into your humanity, that give valuable advice, that whisk you off to distant lands or help you better understand your neighbors, friends, and family.
Books are the magical railway cars that carry us out of ourselves and more deeply into ourselves, all at the same time.
Hop aboard and see what happens.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.