--Helen Humphreys, “Coventry”
“Curious George Goes to the Hospital”: that’s the very first book I claimed as my own, the first volume of prose not read to me by an adult. It was all mine to read: by myself, for myself. A book! My book! In the mid 1960’s Children’s Hospital in Boston sent copies of that book by Margret and H.A. Rey, to boys and girls about to enter the hospital for surgery. The hope was that this story about an overly curious and mischievous monkey, who swallows a puzzle piece and needs to see the doctor, might soothe a child’s fears and worries. It worked.
Do you remember your very first book?
To me at five years old, “Curious George” was an absolute page turner, and made my overnight stay for a tonsillectomy much less anxious—that and all the ice cream I could eat. That tome made my life better, fuller, richer, more fun, and confirmed me as a lifelong book reader, voracious book consumer, confirmed bibliophile. Some might say a book addict. All the kids in my life know that at Christmas or on a birthday, chances are 100 percent that they will absolutely receive a book from Uncle John. My home overflows with books: piled high on the nightstand, spilling off shelves, taking over whole rooms even.
I am always in the middle of reading some book.
I’ve got books on my brain today because this week marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of one book that changed the state of reading for kids, and many adults too: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”, by J.K. Rowling. Two decades on, with 107 million copies sold, that story of a boy wizard and the magical world he inhabits, introduced a whole new generation of young people to the joy of reading. Made reading cool again, in a way, brought reading back to a level of communal excitement not seen for a very long time. Folks waited in midnight lines outside bookstores for the latest volume. Middle school kids, parents too, cherished their dog-eared copies like dear old friends.
Books do this. Change lives. Change the world.
Books have had this effect on humans since the publication of the very first book by ancient Egyptians in 2400 B.C.; maybe even “Curious George Goes to the Pyramids”—okay, probably not. But there is something magical, mystical, even sacred about a book. Just one book can empower the powerless, topple kings and kingdoms, spark revolutions, transform for the good so many lives. Like the Bible, the first widely published book, in 1517; the Quran, the sacred text for Muslims, first organized into book form in 650 A.D.; or “Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of Sayings”. In the 1950’s that slim volume of political wisdom united a new nation of 550 million people. Researchers generally agree that these are the three most printed and read books in human history.
Granted, every few years we’ll read a story about the decline of book reading, even the death of book reading: as printed books shift to electronic formats, as folks seemingly eschew a heavy print book for a lightweight smartphone, as our attention spans shorten. “Who’s got time to read a whole book?” But as the author Mark Twain might opine, if he was still alive: “Reports of the death of book reading are highly exaggerated.”
According to a 2016 Pew Forum poll, seventy-three percent of all Americans report reading at least one book in the last year and the typical reader has read four books in the previous twelve months. Those numbers, while down slightly in the last decade, have held pretty steady. We may now get our book from Amazon and not the corner bookstore, and yet we humans do still read a lot, A LOT, of books. Last year alone, more than 1.2 million new books were published around the globe, according to the United Nations. And yes, I probably bought a fair chunk of those!
Because I love to read and I love books.
Books keep us company: when I’m reading, I never feel alone. Books expand our world and world view: where else can I travel to the four corners of the planet without ever leaving the comfort of my backyard Adirondack chair on a summer day? Books entertain us; make us into armchair detectives or bodice ripping romantics, science fiction rocket pilots or medieval slayers of dragons. Books reintroduce the past to us: remind us that many others came before us and so maybe we are really not “all that”. Books teach and illuminate, free minds to expand and souls to soar. Books allow us to escape into realities we could only dream about. Books engage our brains like no other activity. Books make us think, a noble ideal, especially in times when the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, can feel as if it is under attack.
So here’s some summer advice. Find a good book, a comfy place to sit, get your favorite beverage and then sit back and read. Read a book. A good book. Who knows where it will take you or how it might change you and even the world? And if you’d like to read some Curious George, I can always lend you my copy.