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By BILL MAXWELL
Published December 16, 2007
If you want to buy a special Christmas gift for a child, especially one in poverty, buy a good book he or she will enjoy reading.
I am writing on this subject because I had the pleasure of hearing Doris Lessing's recent Nobel lecture that focused on the importance of reading, especially in the lives of writers.
Lessing described a visit with the headmaster of an impoverished school in rural Zimbabwe: "As I sit with my friend in his room, people drop shyly in, and all, everyone begs for books. 'Please send us books when you get back to London,' one man said. 'They taught us to read but we have no books.' Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books."
Lessing was especially impressed that young children hungered for books. Each time I visit South Africa, I have the same encounters with children. Most recently, when I was in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement in Cape Town, my tour guide said that books are the children's most prized possessions. I heard the same thing in Langa, a black township. I promised a teacher there that when I return to Cape Town next year, I will bring as many books, belated Christmas gifts, as I can for the children.
I recall the magic of books in my childhood. My father did a lot of things wrong, but he did one thing right. He put me on his lap, and, using comic books, he taught me how to read. He worked for the sanitation department of Fort Lauderdale and brought home books he found in the trash.
I enjoyed having him read to me. Besides his deep voice and clear pronunciation, he could dramatize a story's action and evoke the range of emotions the characters experienced. Reading turned my father, who ordinarily was loud and crude and mean, into a gentle, inspired teacher.
Without intending to do so, he taught me one Christmas that Santa did not exist. A few weeks before Christmas, he asked me to make a list of five books I wanted to read. I recall that one book was The Yearling. Although I had read it at school, I wanted my own copy. Another was H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I do not recall the others.
On Christmas morning, a used copy of each book was under the Christmas tree neatly gift-wrapped. I knew that the traditional Santa, the fat man in red, had nothing to do with those books. My father was Santa.
Later, when we traveled as migrant farm workers, books were my most constant and most reliable companions. They never disappointed. They enriched my life and even made late-night hunger bearable. In fact, I did not know my life as a migrant was as miserable as it was because I found solace in the adventures and characters in my books.
Tony and Penny Mills, editors of Quotable Quotes for the Book Lover, had experiences similar to mine. "When we were children books carried us into a magic world where everything was possible," they write. "While the rain drizzled down outside, or adults mercilessly bored on, we could escape to a sunnier land of dreams and excitement."
I cannot think of anything more important than getting children to love reading. I have traveled to several Third World nations, and I can tell you that we in the developed world are fortunate to have ample books to read. I always am amazed that so many of us do not place more value on books and the gift of reading.
Lessing, too, is mystified that so many of us take reading for granted. Here, she describes the reading experiences of a fellow writer: "I have a friend from Zimbabwe. A writer. Black - and that is to the point. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the good cared-for huts of the better off. ... He found a discarded children's encyclopedia on a rubbish heap and learned from it."
As I said at the outset, books that children will enjoy reading are special. And the best way to know which books they want to read is to ask them. I cannot think of a better gift for Christmas.
[Last modified December 17, 2007, 09:07:32]