Column for March 6, 2005

Voices of Maine by Jeanette Baldridge

The power of reading is quite ‘matchless’

Funny how memory plays tricks. When I think back, I can see myself standing by the fountain, my bare feet numb from the cold. I can feel the warmth on my icy fingers as I light the matches I was unable to sell. I feel the fear of going home because my father will beat me for not selling my matches.

Through brightly lit windows, I remember watching people laughing and eating. The tables of food make my empty stomach growl.

Did this really happen to me? No, of course not. But so real was the story of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen when my mother first read it to me, I became that little girl. To this day, when I think of the longing, the cold and the fear of that scene, tears well up in my eyes. Such is the power of stories.

Although the story made me cry, that was the beginning of my love affair with books. I doubt that my mother realized how sad the story was before she read it. No doubt it was tucked into a book of children’s stories that she had checked out of the library. As I think about it now, however, it was probably good that the story was so powerful, because at the young age of 5, it left me with the idea that a story could transport me into another time, another place, another person. I have been an avid reader all my life, thanks to her.

The second thing Mama did for me, was to introduce me to the library. In those days, people didn’t buy books as readily as they do now. But that didn’t prevent us from reading. I remember going to the library with her, my younger brother and sister in tow, all of us holding hands. I remember the smell of the library, the wonder of all those books stacked to the ceiling and that we could have any one we wanted. It was a feeling of richness I never experienced any other way. There were shelves of books just my height, books with pictures and words I could read. Oh, the joy! I remember the long walk home with our bags of books, a walk that seemed to take forever.

That scene repeated itself years later when Mama did the same thing with my children. She had a “book bag,” a cloth satchel with all their library cards pinned to the handle, and every week they would walk to the library and return with a load of books, their faces lit up as I’m sure mine used to be.

Books are more plentiful today. For a few dollars one can even purchase a book, then download it on a home computer and print it off. No need to even leave the house. Goodbye, it seems, to the delightful look and feel of holding a book in your hands. And goodbye as well to the library? No way.

The library is much more than just books. The library is the hub of a community where people can gather to exchange ideas and discuss the books they’ve read. So it is not surprising that libraries are alive and thriving.

Right now, Norway Memorial Library is sponsoring a program called “One Book, One Community,” and all the area libraries are participating. The idea, and it is statewide, is for people in a community to read the same book at the same time and get together for discussions. In addition, related discussions and workshops are scheduled over a three-month period pertaining to subjects involved in the story, in this case, millworkers, shipbuilding and tap dancing.

The amazing thing about all this is how many people are participating. On the kickoff evening, when Monica Wood, author of “Ernie’s Ark,” our first book, came to the high school to speak, 150 people showed up to listen. Imagine that! And the events scheduled around the themes in the book have been equally well-attended.

It almost seems as if we were all hungry for each other’s company, and the library has provided the opportunity.

It would be impossible to list all the books that have influenced my life and my way of thinking. I am thankful that my wise mother made sure her children knew the value of books and libraries. Right now, the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi is helping me experience what it’s like to be a woman in Iran and, more importantly, reminding me how privileged we are to be able to read whatever we choose.

Jeanette Baldridge is a writer and teacher who lives in West Paris. She is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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