Richard Lederer celebrates National Library Week (April 7–13). This year’s theme is “Libraries = Strong Communities.”
Decades ago, when I was teaching and writing in New Hampshire, I published a column tracing the history of American libraries. In response, Gertrude King Ramstrom, of Nashua, NH, sent me her luminous memories of childhood adventures in her village library. Two months ago, Mrs. Ramstrom passed away full of years at the age of 104 and one day. Her wingéd words live on:
DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: Your article about libraries whisked me back in time and place to the 1920s and the little village of Haydenville, Massachusetts, where I grew up. Its tiny library, which is still in use, was our only avenue of adventure to the wonders of the outside world, and my brothers and I, along with our friends, made good use of it.
It is not a very imposing building either in architecture or size, and a traveler
probably would not even realize one was there. Although it is on Main Street, it is tucked back at an angle to the road and has a mien of withdrawal, or shyness, as if aware of its insignificance among the libraries of the world. But to us it was a structure of great importance.
Its single room embraced wonderful little nooks, and that was where we acquired a glimpse of the world, had our curiosity aroused, and met with our friends. It was open every Friday evening, and directly after supper Mother made us wash up and comb our hair so we would look respectable and be clean enough to inspect books without leaving fingerprints. Most of our friends were doing the same, and about 7 p.m.
we congregated on the wide stone step of the building. On summer evenings we lingered outside to talk, but in winter it was nice to push into the room and stand over the one-pipe register and allow the heat to blow up around us. There were no rules about talking, except when we became too boisterous, so the boys jostled and joked in one nook while we girls squeezed into another to whisper and giggle.
In our little library was born my love of history, which became my major in college. From The Colonial Twins, The Puritan Twins, and The Twins of the American Revolution through The Red Badge of Courage and With Malice toward None, I read, and am still reading, every historical novel available. By corroborating their assertions with the facts of history, I have found a never-ending source of enlightenment.
While my brothers read The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Huck Finn, I read Pollyanna, Bambi, and The Yearling. As we grew, my older brother turned to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and almost wore out Lindbergh’s We. I can still picture the blue binding of the book with a silver airplane etched on the cover and my brother slouched in a big easy chair with his leg dangling over its arm. Both socks wrinkled around his ankles showing bare legs below the cuffs of his knicker pants, and his hand rumpled his hair as he soared high over the earth with his hero.
As he traveled the skies and seas, I traversed America with Willa Cather, learned to love animals through Albert Payson Terhune stories, found goodness in life with A. J. Cronin, and was whisked away on the whimsy of Elizabeth Goudge. It was a wonderful experience, and because of it I would add another beatitude to the ones we learned back in our Sunday school days: blessed are they who can read and enjoy a good book, for theirs is the world and its kingdoms.
I firmly believe that children are influenced by what they read and that the books we took home from the library impressed upon us what Mother and Dad tried to teach—that good character and high moral values are to be desired above all other attributes. We heard it, we read it, and so we lived it. There is no greater endowment that can be given a child than an ideal and a hero, and our little library did just that for us.
Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 50 books on language, history, and humor, available at his website, www.verbivore.com. Please send your questions and comments about language to [email protected].