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THE JOY OF BOOKS

March 19, 2022

Clare says I failed my first retirement. In June 2014 I resigned as Senior Pastor of Morningside Baptist Church.

Since then, I have taught in the religion department of The University of South Carolina Upstate and served as Pastoral Counselor of First Presbyterian Church, Spartanburg.  

Health issues of the last two years have dictated my second retirement. I have continued my work as a writer with this weekly newspaper column, a dozen books, and more in progress.

Last Saturday, our in-town children, in-laws, and grandchildren took on the enormous task of moving my professional library out of my study and counseling office at First Presbyterian Church.  This beautiful suite, so graciously provided by the church, has been a haven for me, a quiet place where I could read, write, study, and ponder.  It has also been a sacred space, holy ground, where people struggling with tough decisions, profound grief, and painful emotions could open their hearts and bare their souls to the healing power of God’s Spirit through the ministry of listening, prayerful contemplation, and meditating on scripture.

Moving my personal library meant giving away many of the volumes on those shelves.  Though my children and grandchildren received most of them, it was yet another grief experience for me akin to saying goodbye to old friends who have been my companions for fifty-seven years of pastoral ministry.

Our grandchildren are fascinated by books, new and old.  All of them have been in reading programs through their schools or the public 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 and I firmly believe that one of Benjamin Franklin’s best ideas was the free public lending library.

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.

I enjoyed leading and reading with a book club that was sheer delight for the past several years.  One member of the club recently said to me, “The thing I like best about our book club was that we actually read good books.” If you are looking for a book club, please consider visiting on the first Tuesday of each month at 10:30 in the morning or 7:00 in the evening.  Though I can no longer attend due to health issues, the club meets in the Arthur Center at First Presbyterian Church.  The book club welcomes all people who enjoy reading.

Before the COVID pandemic, when I could visit the public library and had a little extra time, I enjoyed browsing through the stacks.  Two of the most meaningful 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 the year after I finished Furman.  We both remembered the rivalry between the two colleges, especially one incident when Citadel Cadets kidnapped the Furman mascot, a magnificent white horse.  Pat told the true story in Beach Music.

I never met Pat Conroy, but I was interested in his writing because we were the same vintage.  His death in March 2016 came far too early.  

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.

Anyone who has attempted to write owes a debt of gratitude to others who have guided and influenced their lives.  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 profoundly influenced his reading choices and writing style.

One such influence in my life was my mother, 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 an incredible 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 one after the item I was researching.  For example, if I were looking up Thomas Edison’s phonograph invention, 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 specific 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 Psalms.  After memorizing 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 grandfather, whom I called Pappy, had only an eighth-grade education.  His father died when Pappy was 14 years old.  Pappy quit school to support his widowed mother, older sister, and two younger brothers.  I remember him as an avid reader.  National Geographic, Time, and US News and World Report were magazines stacked on a table on the left-hand side of his favorite chair.  A cigar ashtray, the Herald and the Journal, our local newspapers, and the King James Version of the Bible were on the right-hand side.  After supper, I would enjoy his magazines and the second-hand smoke from his Tampa Nugget cigars.  Before bedtime, Mammy would join us for devotion.  Pappy read from the Bible, and we all knelt and prayed.

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.  Because of her, I discovered Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, 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 well-intentioned Baptists had warned me 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 reading 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 scanning the table of contents and the index made it possible to quickly identify the most important chapters in a nonfiction book.  My reading speed significantly increased.

I later purchased a set of Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer Adler.  My family and 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 hit 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.”

For the first time in years, I have no office and no study away from my home.  I do have an upstairs room in our home designated as my study.  The shelves are well-stocked with many of my favorite books.  Our children and grandchildren are looking forward to the day that I decide to clean up the study.  I am really in no hurry, but Clare can hardly wait.

I encourage you to visit the public library.  Take a child or a grandchild with you. Allow the child to select a book or two they might enjoy.  You choose a couple of books for yourself.  Read together, and as you do, you may discover that a window has opened to the big, wide world far beyond your bailiwick. Along the way, you will teach the joy of books to a child you love.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer and storyteller.  He is a retired teacher, pastoral counselor, and pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to The Friends of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries.  151 South Church Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864)596-3500.

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