Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lighting the Fuse

I recently stepped back through time to a childhood memory as I listened to a talk by Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite authors, speaking in the Pen Pals series. When I was a child I was a passionate reader. I lived in books and was seldom found without one. I had a particular chair in our living room in which I read, my legs over the arm of the chair, engrossed in whatever make-believe world I was conjuring up.  From there I could close out the noise and tumult of my childhood home and step into another world. Anna told a similar story down to the skinny legs thrown over the arm of the chair and her mother nearby cajoling her to go outside and play.  I had a mother like that too, who worried that I wasn't participating in the rites of childhood.  Instead I became a reader, just like my mother who worried so much about me living in books.

Years ago I pressed my mother to write her recollections after a vain attempt to interview her.  One day in the mail I received ten typed pages of what she remembered.  After her memory had fled she ran across this document and thanked me for "forcing" her to record her memories.  A central theme was the library. She fondly remembered Miss Jackson, the librarian at the public library who helped her find books. She wrote of how her sister introduced her to the Canarsie Library and the important role libraries played in her life, how she always had a library card in the seven states in which she lived.  She contemplated how books shaped her sense of right and wrong and her belief that righteousness would prevail.

I have similar memories.  My mother would take us to the library with a box and we would each check out ten books. We carried that box, laden with books, back to the house where my mother would record their titles to assure we could locate them to return the following week. I would read mine and then peruse everyone else's.  

Miss Roecker was my school librarian and a formative figure in my life. She must have recognized a fellow book lover in me and would pull me aside to tell me about books she was sure I would enjoy. One day I arrived at the library with my brother.  I remember they had a reading program where they gave you stickers of underwater creatures for each book that you read. You then pasted them on a page as you sought to fill it up. You had to do a book report to capture those trophies. After my brother gave his book report, Miss Roecker beckoned me over. "Would you like to do a book report?" she asked.  Painfully shy, I looked down, not meeting her eyes, and shook my head.  "Why don't you just tell me about it?" She suggested.  I was in third grade and the book was The Trouble With Jenny's Ear, so memorable that I reread it as an adult with pleasure and later tracked down used copies for my two granddaughters.  I had loved the book and happily shared its story with her.  Afterwards she announced that I had done my first book report and gave me that magical sticker. I was hooked.

Not unlike my mother, I like stories with a theme of redemption, not the religious kind, but more how we right something that is amiss. We are challenged through life by our own limitations or the challenges thrown before us by the universe.  Our universal story is how we meet those challenges, how we right the universe and how we grapple with our own humanity.

As Anna shared her stories of reading in her living room chair and the librarian who saved books for her, I looked around this room filled with readers all lost in reveries thinking of their reading chairs and their childhood librarians.  I realized how universal this experience is for a certain type of child, girls who grow up to be people like me.

Anna talked about how the expression, "I read" in Greek also means "I recognize"  and she spoke of how those librarians recognized us. This was at a time when there were few female role models save teachers, nurses and yes, librarians.  Books are powerful. They are how we learn to understand the world and the people within it. It is not a coincidence that the Nazis burned books and that laws prohibited teaching black slaves to read.  Books can be incendiary and those who recognize and nourish a reader are lighting the fuse of possibility.

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