What Books Have Meant to Me

Our youngest grandchild, Georgia Jane, is learning to read. She’s in Kindergarten at a shiny-new school filled with the most up to date everything. Seven hundred students, in grades K – 5, learn with her. Like a traveler from a foreign country, I attempt to tell her about my first school although she stares back at me with uncomprehending eyes. She cannot imagine such a strange place.

New Columbus had only three teachers and an enrollment of perhaps seventy-five students in eight grades. Nothing was shiny about it, from the oiled pine floors to the coal burning stoves that hunkered in the corner of each classroom. Nothing was up to date even for 1951. We did not have a water fountain, but drank with a dipper from a bucket of cistern water. We went to the toilet in an outhouse outback. We didn’t have a cafeteria. We hung our jackets on hooks in an anteroom quaintly called a “cloakroom.” And yet, we learned to read from books just as Georgia Jane is doing.

This then, is what I would like for her to know about my lifelong journey with books. It is also my valentine to all teachers who teach reading and to those who encourage students to keep on reading through the years. Thank you.

When I was nine and she was eleven, my cousin, also named Georgia, asked, “Why do you love books so much?” Her voice scolded me, as though she had said, “get your head out from behind those pages and let’s go play, Bookworm!”

Although we shared a cherished family name, we were opposite sides of the coin. She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor, and even then I knew she was destined to become head cheerleader. Washed out and freckled, I was on track to wring adolescent angst into bad poetry. And so her question conflicted me. I envied her, yet realized that I had found something almost magical in books. How could I explain to her, she who was content without them, what I had found in books?

Now that I am old, I hear – I understand --my cousin’s question differently than I did a lifetime ago. Reading a truckload of books, as I have done, is not the only way to achieve a meaningful life – not by a long shot. Yet, it has been a large part of my way, and I cannot imagine who I might have become without the help of books.

My first grade teacher, Miz Zell True, may have been a religious fanatic. I prefer to think of her as devout. What I remember is that she talked about miracles a lot, about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, about
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and that she taught me to read. I thought then, and still do now, that a love of books was the miracle Miz Zell asked God to grant me.

I knew on some primitive level that language distinguished us from the cows and sheep on our farm. Talking to each other was a large part of what it meant to be human. Even those I knew who were deaf, like our neighbor’s little girl, or mentally impaired like my mother’s friend Elizabeth, sought ways to “talk.” Now, as a reader, I had cracked the code of written language. And so I, a little Kentucky girl who lived at a crossroads called Natlee that you couldn’t even find when you were standing right there, much less on a map – I could join a world-wide conversation. And I did.

Like the ancients around their prehistoric campfire, I began with stories. Mine were simple ones like The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries. In third grade the bookmobile pulled into my world, and lured me to the inspiring shelves of blue-bound biographies about America’s great. I also read for information, about dinosaurs, about history in the Little House on the Prairie books, and about a ga-zillion other topics.

By seventh grade, felled by flu that lingered for weeks, I began to plow through my father’s bookshelf of classics, Robinson Crusoe, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Tom Jones, Green Mansions. Story made room for character and theme. My understanding of the world grew more complex.

In our small high school, English teachers like Joanne DeWitt and Eileen Morgan directed me toward the best of the best. (Am I the only one who hoards her school-day anthologies as though they were rare books?) In college, I declared as an English major the first week and never looked back. I was fortunate to enter higher education when classical surveys of English, American and World literature were still mandatory. My professors plunged me into the finest writing the world has produced and let me simmer.

I won’t belabor my lifetime syllabus, here, because – and I’m not being disingenuous -- I am embarrassed that it isn’t longer. I haven’t read enough. Still, as a reader, I’ve probably met every kind of person who ever was and lived through most every human condition. I have stepped outside of myself, beyond my narrow place, and though I cannot see with the eye of God, I have caught a glimpse of all humanity.

As a young high school English teacher, I stumbled across something Jesse Stuart wrote for the introduction of our textbook. I read it to my students with tears in my eyes and they thought, rightfully, that I was a little crazy because I do get crazy when I talk about the miracle of written language. But old Jesse had nailed what I’d been fumbling to tell them.

“Monuments fall, nations perish. Civilizations grow old and die out. And after an era of darkness new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Copyright © September 2016 Georgia Green Stamper