Reading Makes the World Wider

I love reading, even the sadness of turning the final page and seeing the simple, yet solemn words: The End. I know that the final gleam of story will linger inside me. The story lives. And my world is wider. – Natalie

Natalie and I were talking the other day how we feel bereft when we reach the last page of a particularly good book. Until another equally good book enters our lives, we’re a bit sad. Yet this is the sweet consolation: if one knows “the sadness of turning the final page,” it means that one has discovered the pleasure of reading. Since I was ten years old, reading books—especially novels–has provided me solace, inspiration and companionship.

Here is a story I read five years ago that so moved me, I still think about it:

In an essay titled “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal,” NY Time’s Nicholas D. Kristof told the story of Olly Neal, who grew up one of 13 brothers and sisters in a house with no electricity. He attended a small school for black children in the 1950’s segregated south. He was a self-described “not nice kid” who shoplifted regularly and mouthed off so much he reduced his English teacher, Mrs. Grady, to tears. One day, he walked into the library, which Mrs. Grady had set up, and spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman. It was titled The Treasure of Pleasant Valley by Frank Yerby, a black author. Because he didn’t want his friends to know that he was reading a novel, he snuck the book out of the library. He went home and read it. He loved it. When he returned the book to the bookshelf where he had found it, he was surprised to find another novel by Frank Yerby. This happened four times. By this time, he loved reading. He started reading everything, including harder novels and newspapers and magazines.

At a high school reunion years later, he learned that Mrs. Grady had seen him take the first book. Instead of confronting him, the next Saturday she drove to Memphis (which was 70 miles away) to search for another book by Frank Yerby. She finally found one and placed it on the library shelf. She did this on two more Saturdays. She paid for the books out of her own pocket. She knew that if Olly Neal kept reading books, the books would make his world wider.

That’s what happened.

Olly Neal went to college and then law school. Olly Neal’s daughter earned a doctorate in genetics, taught bioethics at Emory University, and now runs a community development program in Arkansas.

Inspired by this story, I have just sent two books to a boy I hardly know. He told me he hasn’t found any books he loves. When I asked him what he’s interested in, he told me “oceans and farms.”

I will let you know what happens.

 

2 comments to Reading Makes the World Wider

  • Carolyn Goodart

    I am reminded of a patron I knew when I worked at Santa Monica Public Library. I suggested the book “Ishi” to her, and she came back for more like Ishi! I couldn’t think of a follow up, but when I got home and mentioned the incident to my husband Bill (who had been the one to put me on to Ishi in the first place), he thought I should have referred her to “Hunting with the Bow and Arrow,” by Saxton Pope. Sadly, I never saw that patron again. Pope and Ishi were friends, which would have been interesting to that patron, I think.

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