My mother gave birth to six daughters in the span of ten years. Three toddlers and three slightly older, but not old enough to be left alone, kids circled her like a pack of hungry wolves. One might imagine that my most lucid memories involve my mother tossing us chunks of raw meat to assuage our wants and keep us quiet. Those memories do live on. But, the most vivid memories I have of my mother include a book somewhere in the scene. I see her reclined on the couch reading; propped up in bed reading; standing in the kitchen reading. Stacks of books teetered on her bedside table, on every shelf in the den, and at least one in the car.
I feasted on my mother’s books. In my early teens I devoured Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden, and Phyllis Whitney. Later my taste would diverge, but at that time Gothic Romance tantalized as hormones surged. I could not get enough. Nor could my mother.
Captivated by the Merlin trilogy: Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Enchantment I secreted myself in the den, half hidden behind the door. And then it was Victoria Holt, and the Legend of the Seventh Virgin. Having attended Catholic school for several years by then I had to suspend my disbelief at the concept of nuns having the capacity to fall in love. But I could well imagine wanting to wall one of them up behind layers of brick.
When we were barely old enough my mother dropped us off at the library while she eked out a few minutes to herself. The old brick building lured us in with the promise of discovery. Opened in 1935, it existed solely due to the altruism of a Mr. Milton Martin, who believed reading to be the path to success. We got lost in the stacks, the nooks and crannies, awash in the fragrance of aging tomes, amid the hushed atmosphere of whispered conversations.
In high school I gravitated toward a boy who loved books. While I lost myself in Austen and Bronte’s England he soared to the alternate universes of science fiction.
Imagine your world without books. Go ahead and try, I’ll wait. Can’t do it can you? Neither can I. What if Goodnight Moon did not exist for you to lull your kids to sleep, or How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? What if that novel you can’t wait to pick up at the end of your day went missing, along with the characters in whose lives you’ve become immersed? What if you were denied access to your digital reader? What if even that ancient copy you’d saved, for some reason you fail to remember, of a Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1942 just vanished? You are bereft of reading material.
Such a scenario, a book famine, exists in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa seems like a lost continent, doesn’t it? The rich countries take what we want from it, oil from Nigeria, blood diamonds from wherever the one percent can get them. In our wake we leave corrupt governments that allow their citizens to starve, or kill each other in horrific civil wars. Somali pirates, genocide in Darfur, Sierra Leone and their drug-addled child soldiers, rape as control in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country so misnamed as to be laughable, if it weren’t that life for women is so brutal.
Forty percent of children in Africa do not attend school. That’s an entire continent, not a single country! In classrooms fortunate enough to staff teachers 10-20 students share a single textbook. Our kids look at a textbook and see hours of tedium. They head to their locker and bury it beneath sweaty gym clothes. Kids in Africa cherish books. We crave what we cannot have.
Four star charity organizations like Books for Africa and Book Aid International do diligent work to provide books for children in more than a dozen African countries. Opportunity begins with education. Whether we contribute to four star charity organizations that help globally, or promote literacy in our own communities, or simply read to our kids before they fall asleep, it’s comforting to realize we can change a kid’s life one book at a time.
I’m reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s, Pulphead, a book of essays. He is a master of the craft. What’s on your reading list?