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August 31, 2019

Our grandchildren are fascinated by books, new and old.  Several of them have been in summer reading programs through the public library. Clare and I firmly believe that one of Benjamin Franklin’s best ideas was the free public lending library. As members of the Friends of the Library, we make good use of the vast array of books and media resources offered at our local establishment.

Clare scans and reads an amazing assortment of these materials, often having several books going at one time. Recorded books also help her keep track of new authors and interesting titles. After filtering through the volumes, she advises me on materials I need to read.

Next week I will begin a new season of reading with a book club that is sheer delight. One member of the club recently said to me, “The thing I like best about our book club is that we actually read good books.” If you are looking for a book club, please join us on the first Tuesday of each month at 10:30 in the morning or at 7:00 in the evening. We meet in the Arthur Center at First Presbyterian Church. Though we meet in a church, our book club welcomes all people.

Sometimes when I am in the library and have a little extra time, I browse through the stacks. Two of the most enjoyable books I read in the past few years were titles I picked up doing just that. They were written by the well-known authors, Louis L’Amour and Pat Conroy. Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man and Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life are alike in that they provide insight into the voracious reading habits of these two prolific writers.

Pat Conroy was one year younger than I. He graduated from the Citadel one year after I finished Furman. We both remembered well the rivalry between the two colleges, especially one incident when Citadel Cadets kidnapped the Furman mascot, a magnificent white horse. Pat told the story in Beach Music.

I never met Pat Conroy; but because we were the same vintage, I was interested in his writing. His death in March 2016 came far too soon for many of us.

My connection to Louis L’Amour is less obvious. Born Louis Dearborn LaMoore in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1908, he was considered one of the world’s most popular writers. At the time of his death in 1988, no fewer than 105 of his existing works were in print.  He is known primarily for his Western adventures, but my favorite is his full-length novel set in Siberia during the Cold War, The Last of the Breed.

Pat Conroy’s 2010 book, My Reading Life,  was the featured selection in the One Book, One Columbia program. Every February the capital city of South Carolina promotes literacy by encouraging all citizens to read the same book.

The 2015 choice was My Reading Life. In a conversation about the book with historian Walter Edgar, Pat Conroy identified a school teacher, Gene Norris, who had profoundly influenced his reading choices and his writing style.  Anyone who has attempted to write owes a debt of gratitude to others who have guided and influenced their lives.

One such influence in my life was my mother, who was an avid reader. She saw to it that her eight children had access to quality books. I remember the sacrifice she made to purchase the World Book Encyclopedia. What a marvelous resource to have in our home!

Early on I developed a habit that my dad found amusing, but one that served me well. When I looked up a topic in the encyclopedia, I always read at least one entry before and at least one after the item I was researching. For example, if I were looking up Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, I would also read the history of Phoenicia and the Greek myth of the phoenix. Later, I started doing the same thing when looking up a word in my trusted Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

My mother and grandmothers encouraged me to read and memorize certain passages from the Bible. They used the time-honored Baptist method of bribery. I received a dollar for committing to memory the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and several of the Psalms. After I memorized Matthew Chapters 5, 6, and 7, which is the entire Sermon on the Mount, one grandmother gave me ten dollars.

As important as the Bible was, Mama encouraged us to read a wide variety of literature.

Clare and I treasure a verse by Strickland Gillilan:

You may have tangible wealth untold;

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be –

I had a Mother who read to me.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter, was another encourager. She introduced me to the orange books. I much preferred biography and read many books of the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were hardback books with bright orange covers. That same year Mama suggested that I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mrs. Estelle Lampley, my eighth-grade English teacher, was as tough as nails.  Determined to rid me of my lumberyard grammar, she assigned so many sentences to diagram that I sometimes do them in my sleep to this day.

After the eighth grade, I thought I had it made. I had passed the woman who surely must have been the hardest English teacher in the land. Then, lo and behold, I had Mrs. Lampley again in the eleventh grade. Her mission that year was to teach me to write the English language. Requiring reading beyond my comfort zone was her method. It was because of her that I discovered Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Thomas Wolfe.

At Furman University I majored in biology and minored in chemistry, planning to enter medical school upon graduation. During my first week at Furman I discovered the James B. Duke Library. Though I had been warned by well-intentioned Baptists about the evils of Charles Darwin, I realized that I needed to read the original documents for myself. I found Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which chronicled the adventure of a lifetime for a young seminarian, absolutely fascinating.

Once I arrived at Southern Seminary I realized that a steady diet of scientific fare had made reading tedious. My professor, Dr. Wayne Oates, suggested I read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. I thought it a useless endeavor until I reached the final chapter. Adler made the point that by scanning the table of contents and the index, it was possible to quickly identify the most important chapters in a nonfiction book. My reading speed greatly increased.

I later purchased a set of Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer Adler. I continue to enjoy the collection to this day.

When I received the Merrill Fellowship to Harvard Divinity School, I was asked to name the five books that had most influenced my life. I listed the King James Version of the Holy Bible; the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Oxford Annotated Edition; The Broadman Hymnal; The Tales of Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris, and the Boy Scout Handbook.

Harvard University, which has the oldest library system in the United States, includes seventy-three separate libraries. Once I arrived at Harvard, I was like a kid in a candy shop. When I found my stride I was devouring two books daily.

Louis L’Amour writes of the great joy that is to be found in books: “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived; for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”

I encourage you to visit the library. Select a book or two you might enjoy. Read, and as you do, you may discover that a window has opened to the big, wide world far beyond your bailiwick.

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