We were with my parents tonight and talking about the royal family. I said something about how hard it would be for most men to be married to a queen, but not be king. My Mom said, "Jeffrey could do it. He would stand behind you every step of the way. He'd be your backbone, your strength and your sounding board. And he'd do it all without any attention or credit." As usual, my mother is right. And really, Mom, that's just what he does now. That's Jeffrey exactly: my backbone, my strength, my wisdom, my passion, the love of my life. I'm so excited for you guys to get to meet him. This is Jeffrey, my husband, the butter to my bread and the light in every darkness.
What is my passion? Well, I have a few, but somehow they are all connected to reading. So maybe I could say that literature entwines itself into all my passions. Okay, I am a librarian; I can’t help it. Like most people in my profession, I have loved reading at least as far back as my earliest memories. Those memories include my mother reading Little House on the Prairie to my brother and me, as well as Dad reading Tom Sawyer and a novelization of Disney’s Davy Crockett to us. Books can take my breath away, break my heart, and inspire me all in the space of ten pages. Bilbo’s adventures still thrill me, Edmund Dantes still causes my heart to ache, and Johnthan Edwards still challenges my brain and my soul. I read all those pieces of literature before I had turned seventeen, and they still hit me hard. But you know what? I am not unique in this. I am not even rare―especially not in my profession.
So, what is special about my passion for literature? I have been ruminating on one answer to that question as a result of reading the educational research book Focus by Mike Schmoker. Schmoker quotes Kelly Gallagher as writing, “I am a different person because I have read 1984. I see my government differently, I consider privacy issues differently and I have a heightened sense of propaganda and language manipulation – all because I have read this novel.” Schmoker goes on to say, “I, too, am a different person, as are many of you, because of the characters and ideas I have encountered in prose and poetry.”
The reason my passion for literature really matters? A few of those works of prose and poetry did more than inspire, thrill, or sadden me. They changed me. They left me a different person.
What are those life-changing works of literature? Well, funny you should ask…
The Holy Bible ―
For me these precious, sacred pages are not a cliché nor are they obligatory. In these pages, I met the Jesus the touches a leper before healing him. Think what that touch meant to a man that had been ostracized in ways very few of us can even comprehend. In these pages the prophets of old burned into my soul the need to fight against the oppression of the poor, the weak, and the unlovely. In these pages, I truly learned that my fate is not determined by my meager strengths or even my deep inadequacies―I am a man cradled by GRACE!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ―
Simply put, I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.
“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson ―
“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse…”
These lines and so many others from Emerson’s genius gave me the intellectual underpinning to have the courage to ignore peer pressure as a teenager. I could not read those words and give up what I knew to be true just because someone else wanted me to or expected me to.
“Some keep the Sabbath going to church” by Emily Dickinson ―
Picture a poetry-hating boy sitting in a junior level American literature class and the teacher assigns the poetry of this crazy recluse from Amherst, Massachusetts. I was that boy, but one poem’s title caught my attention, because I keep the Saturday Sabbath. I read that poem, and it changed me. I suddenly thought maybe there is something to this poetry thing. I have never stopped loving it since then, and it has never stopped changing me (Thank you for this gift, Janet McPeters.). Because of a crazy recluse from Amherst, I found the worlds of Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins, and even Shakespeare. But the most significant things I found after Dickinson opened my eyes and my mind are the next two pieces of literature.
“Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson ―
My wonderful senior English teacher, Diane Whittaker, assigned this one to me, and twenty-three years later it still makes my heart race. I sat in an old radiator-heated classroom in 1988 and knew I must drink my life “to the lees.” I want to write on and on about how this poem affected who I am. So many lines from it course through my veins today, in this very instant:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move…
…As tho’ to breathe were life!
…To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Today as then, reading those lines makes me want to sound Whitman’s barbaric yawp and pump my fist in the air.
One of my few regrets as a teacher and librarian has been that I have not found a teenager that this poem inspires, but I will strive, I will seek, I will find, and I will not yield.
“Curiosity” by Alistair Reid ―
“Jeffrey, you always have so many questions.” or “Do you always have to know why?” These are things I have heard all my life. It felt like most of the people with authority in my life thought something was slightly wrong with me because I could not let anything rest until I knew WHY. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, and then Diane Whittaker (Yes, her again) assigned “Curiosity” to my senior English class, and I found affirmation that not only is my curiosity okay, it is an imperative. In fact the problem is with the “wagging of incurious heads and tales.”
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die--
only lack of it will.
Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard ―
Here, at forty-years-old, in my tears, I discovered compassion for those that I had deemed worthy only of my scorn. Never underestimate the power of young adult literature.
Louis L’Amour’s Body of Work ―
I know many people belittle his work, but I truly owe so much of who I am to Louis. I suppose that is why some small part of my heart still longs to be a cowboy. But far bigger are the things his characters taught me. I learned to crave education, to work hard, to punch hard and first if I have to. But the best gift Louis gave me was the knowledge of the kind of woman I wanted to spend my life with―a smart, strong woman that would walk beside me not behind me. And I found her―a woman “to ride the river” with. Thanks, Louis.
Frank Merriwell’s School Days, Frank Merriwell’s Foes, & Frank Merriwell’s Chums by Burt L. Standish ―
Most people have never heard of Frank Merriwell, and yet these didactic little novels changed who I was. These turn-of-the-century novels for boys were intended teach youngsters how to have good character. And you know what? It really worked for my brother and me. When I have been loyal, courageous, or tenacious, at least some part of that is Frank Merriwell popping up in my heart. If I were a cartoon character, he would be the face of the good angel on my right shoulder.
Before picking up each of these pieces of literature, I was not who I am, but each of them has been a significant step toward becoming me. Therein lies my passion for the written word. Every time I pick up a new piece of literature, I cannot know if I will be the same person when I have finished reading. I cannot even be sure I will still be recognizable as the person I am now. This is powerful. This is dangerous. This is sublime.