There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Courser like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
When I was very young, I ran away from home, taking the BMT from Flatbush to Manhattan, where a kind policeman picked me up when he saw me wandering around the station at Eighth Avenue. I had no identification and about a dollar in change, but in those days every kid in Brooklyn knew his or her address and telephone number, singing a catchy jingle each morning that began “Remember your name and address / and telephone number, too.” So before long, my distressed parents arrived to take me home, snatching out of my hands a paperback with a lurid cover that some policeman in the Station House had loaned me while I waited. He didn’t think I knew how to read.
My reason for running away was both clear and murky — which I later discovered was also true of most adult crises. I had brown hair, my younger sister Pat was blonde, and a third brother or sister was on the way. Out of the blue (to stay in the spectrum) I announced at dinner one evening that if this new arrival had red hair, I was going to run away. My unbelieving father applauded. A few days later, on being told that our family now had a baby girl named Carol with a nice crop of red hair, I pulled on my jacket and headed off.
Later, we often wondered where I got that bizarre idea, and decided it must have been my love of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which, in our illustrated copy at least, seemed to associate red with danger — even Snow White had “lips as red as blood.” Speaking generally, of course, that adventure and all others that followed came because of my reading.
I know my mother read to my sisters and me when we were growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Although she didn’t go to college, except for a few summers at Cornell, she became a certified school teacher and had a lovely, soothing voice (passed on to our red-headed younger sister Carol). I don’t remember Mom (or Dad) teaching me specifically, but by the time I got to kindergarten I knew how to read.
I’m convinced that early reading would solve a lot of society’s problems today, particularly the gaping split between the Haves and Have-nots. Early reading launches us into the world of imagination, taking us to Oz and Wonderland and England and Germany and China. We have a divided society, and that division is set early on. Poverty divides us, but multiple-pronged reading programs could help make us a mobile society again. Free children’s books! How many free books would cancel an unwanted, unused, and unnecessary bomber purchase? Looking to create more jobs? How about Readers for Needy Children?
With good books in their formative years, most children can move past the stupid movies and TV that make us stupider, and into the arts, or at least better TV and movies! I’m not talking highfalutin’ here — but look around any museum, any theater, any art gallery, any symphony, any bookstore: you’ll see a crowd of early readers, who developed their tastes starting with Mother Goose and fairy tales and moved through A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six
, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses
, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
, and the rest of the pantheon. Unlike gin (usually), reading is a productive addiction.
Education’s the stairway, early reading’s the key, and art is the house with many rooms that we all need to enter to live a decent life.
Even if you run away once in a while, just remember your name and address: you can go home again.
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.
—Both quotes from #1263 by Emily Dickinson (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Little, Brown & Co., 1955).