Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Send Me a Man Who Reads

The title of this post refers to an ad campaign by a company I used to work for, International Paper. This slogan was coined back in the 1960's and implied that a man who was well read would be worthy of hire. Today it might have to be amended to: "Send Me a Man Who Can Read!" There are several reasons why people stopped reading: 1) Television - Why read it when I can watch it. 2) Pace of life: Reading a book takes days; life is faster today. People want to "Google" everything for instant gratification. 3) Off-the-cliff drop in the quality of our schools - Too many students view reading as a chore; the notion of reading for pure pleasure never occurs to them.

Being an avid reader from my teens, I find this a sad state of affairs. Books were my ticket out of the everyday world to places and adventures I could only dream of. I can't give you the month and year when the reading habit took root, but I remember going to the local library and haunting the dusty shelves for something exciting. Probably the first book I can remember that made an impression on me was "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane. Maybe this book stayed with me because the protagonist was a young boy around my age actually going to fight for his country on the side of the Union. Any boyish notions about the glory of war (even though I probably didn't know it back then) were put to rest by reading about the boy's struggle to overcome cowardice and endure the horrors of battle.

In high school we were assigned books that were "required reading" like The Iliad, Moby Dick, and Ivanhoe. I hated them mainly because we were forced to read them by burned-out English teachers who were marking time waiting for their pensions. Then along came Ms. Patricia Hornburger. I have already spoken about her and the influence she had on me, so I won't repeat myself. (See 10/28/08 post: "Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men"). Suffice to say that she took an ember and fanned it into a flame. She made reading interesting; she listened seriously to our childish but earnest opinions of the books, and taught us to look for meanings beyond the author's actual words. The ultimate tribute I can pay her: she made Shakespeare fun.

Some other books that left their mark:

"Gone With the Wind", Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic about Scarlett and Rhett. Mitchell's ability to tell a story is second to none. Happily, the movie made from the book, under the direction of Victor Fleming, was worthy of ten Oscars in 1939 including best picture.

"To Kill a Mockingbird", by Harper Lee, another Southern woman who, like Margaret Mitchell, wrote a blockbuster of a novel, but not much else. Gregory Peck was so good as Atticus Finch, single Dad and small town Mississippi lawyer defending an innocent black man, that he even made lawyers seem sympathetic.

"The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells was one of the early science fiction novels that paved the way for later writers in this genre like Isaac Asimov. Wells, a brilliant man whose own life (Biography of H.G. Wells) was practically as fantastic as some of his books, took us on a journey to the future in a time travel machine. Wells was way ahead of his time, no pun intended.

"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy were for years a relatively obscure set of novels by the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Then came the films, which by the way could not have been any truer to the books, and new legions of fans were born. For me, as good as the Peter Jackson movies were, they will never replace the thrill I got from reading about an entire world created in Tolkien's fertile imagination.

"Catch 22" by Joseph Heller was a hilarious send up of the military. Having been in the Army, and witnessed first hand the the insanity of the military mentality, it was fun to see it laid open and held up to scorn. The movie flopped because, like the NY Yankees, it had a huge assemblage of talent, but the total was far less than the sum of its parts.

"Watership Down" by Richard Adams took me completely by surprise. It's the story of a group of rabbits (yes, rabbits) who plot an escape from their warren to find a better life. Adams nearly had to pay out of his own pocket to get it published. It's not a children's story, but one of courage in the face of fear, friendship, trust, and ultimately, success. This is the only book that so moved me that I actually wrote notes in the margins. Read the book, I promise you'll love it.

Too many others to list. If you want to inspire a love of reading in your own kids or grand kids, read with them. It's the gift that keeps on giving, and they'll remember you for it. I'll never forget the teacher who inspired it in me: to paraphrase the great Jimmy Durante, "Goodnight Ms. Hornburger, wherever you are."


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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