I have just completed reading my first book ever…in electronic format that is. I said I would never switch from the hard copies but things change. Even I can be dragged into the 21st century. Actually I had to be dragged back to the 17th and 18th century books as well.
For as long as I remember, I have been a reader. Some of my fondest memories are afternoons spent in the labyrinth that was the old Carnegie Library on 21st and Capitol Avenue. For you newcomers, it was torn down many years ago. The Catholic Pastoral Center stands there now. As a youngster, it was my second home.
It troubles me to learn how few adults read books. I wonder how the United States can sustain a democracy when one in four adults has not read a book in the last year. Eighty percent of families didn’t even buy a book in the last year. In our own school district, reading proficiency was achieved last year by only 63% of high school students. According to the Wyoming Department of Education, nearly a quarter of all high school graduates who attended a Wyoming college needed remedial help in reading. That may explain why a third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
It isn’t only those who don’t learn to read well in high school. One of my professors at seminary said, “I can always tell when a minister graduated from seminary by the books on his or her shelves!”
For many years, I read little other than contemporary non-fiction. When my wife encouraged me to put a little fiction in the mix, I informed her, “You know don’t you they make that stuff up?” But a few years ago, my colleague Korin Schmidt gave me a Christmas gift of Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. Because it was a gift, I felt obliged to actually read it, all 973 pages. My reading habits changed. For my next birthday, Korin gave me Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and I was hooked, finding there were more truths in works of fiction than I had found in all of the non-fiction I previously read. Korin’s kindness is also the source of my new Nook!
Italo Calvino begins his book Why Read the Classics? , saying, "The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying 'I'm re-reading... ' never 'I'm reading.” Well, the bucket list of books I pulled together were mostly classics I was reading for the first time, though I am sure I had once assured a high school English teacher I had done so. As I read Don Quixote, Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness and others, I came to a couple of conclusions. One is that Thomas Helm was right when he said, “My test of a good novel is dreading to begin the last chapter.” Two, there is good reason for calling them classics. Those old writers understood the power of myth and metaphor. They understood that we may question whether the history books we read are accurate or slanted but the truths told in the classics are inescapable.
This is where I met Tolstoy again for the first time. Interestingly it was a meeting that opened new and exciting doors for this old preacher to get a better view of the meaning of the Gospels. Who’d have thought that a 19th century Russian would have been able to shine that light?