This is an essay by Ruth Coe Chambers.
I grew up in a small Southern town that didn’t boast a library or a bookstore. My parents didn’t own books or appear to miss them. I longed for books. It was a hunger I could never satisfy, a true starvation diet.
And then I began first grade, my first true exposure to books. Oh, the joy of getting to know Dick and Jane. The picture of a doll with blond curls walking on the top rail of a fence. I never doubted that the doll could walk. She was in a book, wasn’t she!
My stepmother refused to tell me bedtime stories because, she told me, no one had done that for her. I was an adult before it occurred to me that having had an unhappy childhood, she probably didn’t know any stories. But my first grade teacher had books and read fairy tales to us. There was no library in the school, but she had a copy of Cinderella we could take home overnight. I wasn’t sure I could live long enough until it was my turn to borrow Cinderella. When the day came, I raced around the corner of the school building after our final recess, eager to take my place, dreaming of having Cinderella to myself for an entire evening. I waited after the last bell rang for the teacher to call my name. When she didn’t, I approached her desk to remind her it was my turn to borrow the book. I’ve never forgotten the nonchalant way she looked at me and said as though it was of no importance, “Oh, Ruth, the book is lost.” Just like that. Lost. So was I, unable to understand her lack of grief. When a favorite aunt sent me copies of Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales for my birthday a few years later, I was dumbstruck at my good fortune. I can still remember where I was standing when I opened the package and the colored balloons on the wrapping paper.
Books seeped into my life in small bunches. A new girl would move to town with books. The first novel I ever read was a borrowed copy of A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. A bit older and a new girl loaned me her Nancy Drew mysteries. I knew books would be wonderful, but I couldn’t imagine the way they transported me to other worlds, introduced me to things I’d never experienced. My impoverished life took on new dimensions.
By the time I graduated from high school, we not only had a modest school library, a public library took shape on one of the main streets in town. And the year I began college, Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, actually boasted its first public library. But for the prejudice that existed in those dark days, Andrew Carnegie would have built one for them years sooner. Mr. Carnegie didn’t believe the color of your skin should determine your access to books.
Settled in my dorm room, the first building I visited at Florida State University was the library. Above the door a message read: THE HALF OF KNOWLEDGE IS TO KNOW WHERE TO FIND KNOWLEDGE. I was disappointed to learn that when the new library was built years later, they omitted that important reminder. I wandered through the old library, mesmerized by so many books. I wanted to lose myself in the stacks, but it was a small library after all, and I never managed to get lost except in the wonderful pages of those books.
My financial situation was such that I dropped out of college and took a job one of my professors found for me at Florida State when she learned I had to leave school. I was able to take one free class each term. Such joy! Time passed and after my marriage, I began taking classes at the University of South Florida. One of those classes was in creative writing. No longer content just to read, I wanted to write myself. That class and others to follow were taught by Professor Wesley Ford Davis to whom I will always be grateful. He inspired one of the first major changes in my life. He talked about books, worthy books. I hadn’t read a one he mentioned, but I wrote the names down and eventually read them all. I discovered the worlds of Faulkner, Welty, McCullers, Williams, and on and on. Southern writers were my favorites. We were to learn from reading the works of luminaries and from having our writing critiqued by Professor Davis and our classmates. If we read really good books, he told us, we would no longer be able to enjoy mediocre material. He was right. My mental taste buds acquired a new diet.
Today books come in all forms. They have made the leap from pages to computers, Nooks, Kindles, etc. What hasn’t changed is the knowledge we gain, the experiences of people we will never meet, worlds we will never visit except in words and pictures. Interactive learning isn’t restricted to conversations with our teachers, colleagues, students, friends . . . To read is to learn. It’s a gift. Literacy is one of the greatest gifts of empowerment and enlightenment that I know. It’s a renewable resource but should never be wasted.
Ruth Coe Chambers, author of The Chinaberry Album, has published short stories and articles. Two of her plays have taken first prize in contests, and she is currently seeking representation for two new novels. She lives in Florida with her husband, dogs Lili and Jade, and a couple of smart cockatiels. The dogs are smart too. Learn more about Ruth on her website at http://www.ruthcchambers.com or her nostalgic blog at www.OldFloridaonMyMind.blogspot.com