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Optimism About the Power of the Book

By John Warren, Head of School

Optimism About the Power of the Book

Immediately after learning of our impending grandparenthood, our conversations with daughter-in-law and son, Caitlin and Ethan, turned to books—their recollections of favorite childhood books that had been read to them and that they had read to themselves, and our recollections of favorite books that we had read to Ethan and to our daughter, Amanda. From Ethan and Amanda’s infancy right up through much of elementary school, my wife and I had a nightly ritual of reading to them, and memories of those times are among our happiest. We have been pleased to learn that these memories are among Ethan and Amanda’s happiest, too.

The prospect of Caitlin and Ethan’s nightly reading aloud to their daughter, and the prospect of periodic grandparent and Aunt Amanda reading aloud to her have prompted recollections about so many fabulous books: Anansi The Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti, Miss Rumphius, Frog and Toad are Friends, Time of Wonder, American Girls, Corduroy, Chronicles of Narnia, The Old Curiosity Shop, to name but a few. These books have so many great messages—usually appropriately unsubtle—like the importance of kindness to those close to you and to those a step removed, the need for empathy and perspective taking, the importance of caring for the natural world, and the benefits of honesty. Since my relationship with my grandfather is one of my most formative, a particular favorite book for me to read to Ethan was Knots on a Counting Rope, the story of a blind Navajo boy who is inspired by his grandfather to conquer his fear and compete in a horse race, which even though he does not win is clearly a personal triumph.

Books can provide wonderful opportunities for bonding and for the building of associations between the stories, the readings, and the books with important people in our lives. Books helped me bond with my parents. My father, who was incredibly well-read in at least four languages, would sit me on his lap when I was very young and recount the stories that lay behind pictures in books he was reading, for example a memorable painting of Joseph Warren, an ancestor, being bayoneted by a Red Coat at Bunker Hill. My mother, also incredibly well-read, patiently engaged me in conversations about books from a very young age. After a visit to the United Nations and the purchase of an Easy Reader United Nations history at the gift shop, my mother helped me process the purpose and promise of the United Nations, then quite new, and particularly Eleanor Roosevelt’s formative role in the organization’s early development. Roosevelt was prominently featured in the book because, as Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Division, she was instrumental in the creation of the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights.

Books have also enriched my friendships. Sharing thoughts with a friend about a mutually enjoyed book is a great joy and being introduced to an outstanding book is a great joy. One of our closest friends, a legendary Milton Academy English teacher, typically gives us each a book for our birthday and for Christmas. We have learned to put his books at the top of our reading pile and, as we work our way through these books, we inevitably have a great topic for searching conversation.

Another enriching book oriented friendship has developed for my wife and me with the owner of an independent bookstore in Rangeley, Maine, a town we frequent during school vacations. A couple of times a year, we stop by and ask him to tell us the two or three most powerful books he has read in recent months. Those books, which he conveniently has on hand, are often unfamiliar to us, and they go to the top of our reading pile too, providing fun conversations for our next visit. Turnaround being fair play, we enjoy telling him about for our favorite recent books also.

The Warrens continue to be a family of readers. One of the great pleasures of summer is the opportunity to spend hours reading on our screened porch at our cabin in Western Maine that overlooks Little Kennebago Lake. When Ethan and Caitlin visit, and when Amanda, and her husband, Dave, visit, they slip right into that same routine.

While a love of reading was not the only prerequisite for these couples when they started to date, it surely helped. Ethan and Caitlin even met in the Bates College bookstore, a story that was written up in the Bates Magazine. Amanda and Dave first got to know each other in a reading heavy Middlebury religion course which influenced them so deeply that, a couple of years later, they asked the professor to officiate at their wedding.

In addition to fun and fellowship, books also help us enrich our understanding. While not a substitute for real-life experience, books provide a frame of reference that allows a person to approach and reflect upon real-life experience in a more sophisticated manner.

When I was in elementary and middle school, a beloved summer ritual was being taken to the Gloucester Public Library by my grandparents. As a baseball fanatic from a very young age, I was especially drawn to the long shelf of biographies of baseball players. Some of the players’ names will be familiar to most of you, like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, while others, like Stan Musial and Roy Campanella, will probably only be familiar to those of you who are as passionate about baseball as me.

I would stack these biographies next to my bed and read them during the hours between when I woke up—early—and when my grandparents were ready to offer breakfast—not so early. Once the stack was finished, my grandparents took me off to the library for more.

As an upper middle class white boy living in a very privileged sheltered environment, these biographies expanded my perspective on the world, providing images, for example, of what it was like for Musial to grow up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania where his extraordinary baseball skill altered his life path from a future as a coal miner or steel mill worker to the St. Louis Cardinals. I also learned about the Negro Leagues, the only professional option available to African Americans before Jackie Robinson desegregated professional baseball in 1947.

Apropos of the Negro League, one biography that etched itself in my mind was of Satchel Paige, generally considered one of the top pitchers ever to play professional baseball. I learned how Paige, as a Negro Leagues player in the 1920s 1930s and 1940s, often traveled in rickety busses, rather than the sleek railroad cars white major league baseball players enjoyed, often practiced on rock filled infields rather than carefully manicured diamonds, and was often barred from the hotels open to white players.

The Satchel Paige story was told with his signature humor and was a tale of following your dream wherever it led. For Paige, following the dream eventually led to the desegregated major leagues. However, the gross injustices of what Paige was forced to experience, even after baseball’s desegregation, was impossible to miss. Biographies such as this, granting that they are sanitized versions of reality, and granting that I enjoyed them in a comfortable large bed on the North Shore of Massachusetts, did provide a degree of empathy and perspective, which would otherwise have been absent, important for the development of my ten- and twelve-year old self.

What about the future of books? Many commentators have worried, in recent years, about the death of what they call serious reading: that sustained reading experience where you look at your watch and realize you have been entranced by a book for hours, the sort of reading experience which leads to sophisticated insights. These commentators cite evidence of shorter attention spans caused by social media, and they cite the amount of reading being done online where the text contains embedded links that draw your attention away from the main topic, preventing deep intellectual engagement. These commentators also point to the disruption in the publishing industry where a small number of authors get huge print runs and become gigantically rich while many other authors struggle to get published because many publishing companies, particularly university presses, are publishing fewer books every year.

While I understand the cause for concern, I remain optimistic about the continuing importance of serious reading and of books. First of all, reading is pleasurable. While the way people experience books may continue to become more varied, I am confident that the pleasure of the enterprise will remain.

Research and technology may actually enable more people to enjoy the pleasure of books. As a case study, when my nephew was young, learning issues made reading a struggle. I suspect that in previous generations he would have abandoned the effort because it was too hard and was not rewarding. However, thanks to skilled teachers employing forward looking pedagogy, patient and persistent parents, and an increasing number of books directed toward readers like him at his different stages of development, my nephew now has always, happily, got at least one book going. Technology has also enabled a friend of mine to enjoy books, after finding reading a chore for much of his life because of attention issues. My friend has discovered that, for whatever reason, by increasing the font size on a page of his electronic reader, he can enjoy books immensely.

I also believe that books will remain a vital element of our way of life because books provide a unique means to understand reality. Books engage your imagination in a manner that allows you to understand what you otherwise could not. Good history provides a unique window into the past; good biography provides a unique window into human nature; good journalism provides a unique window into places where you have not gone and into topics with which you are not conversant; good fiction provides all of that.

I appreciate the way a stunning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, enhanced my understanding of North Korea this past summer. As a longtime student of Asia, I have read extensively about North Korea, although what is available is limited since that totalitarian society has been largely closed off to outsiders since the early 1950s. The novel’s author, Adam Johnson, set as his task seeking to understand the personal dimension, “how families,” in his words, “huddled under such repression and how people maintained their identities against the tide of propaganda, and whether lovers, despite the dangers, shared their intimate thoughts.” To achieve this objective, Johnson engaged in extensive research, reading every primary and secondary source he could get his hands on, interviewing as many defectors as he could, and finding an opportunity to travel in North Korea, although under very controlled circumstances.

Johnson describes literature as “fiction that tells a deeper truth,” and in this case the “truth” he tries to convey is, again in his words, “how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love.” The vehicle Johnson uses to convey this truth is the life story of one man, the orphan master’s son, and the story is incredibly memorable; haunting images will long remain in my mind.

Without growing up in North Korea, we cannot know how fully Johnson succeeds at the goal of conveying a deeper truth about life in that country. However, reviewers knowledgeable about North Korea have given the book high marks, and the Pulitzer Prize Committee thought highly enough of the book to award it their 2013 Prize for Fiction. The power of The Orphan Master’s Son, in my eyes, lies in its ability to provide a unique means of understanding a country that merits as much understanding as possible, given that North Korea will undoubtedly remain a challenging factor in world politics in the coming years.

I am confident that the demand for what books can provide, a unique perspective on topics like history and human nature, will continue. I am also confident that talented authors will continue to produce books that achieve this objective.

0001John Warren ’74 is St. Mark’s School’s fifteenth Head of School. He lives on campus in Choate House with his wife, Dr. Laura Appell-Warren. They have two children, Ethan and Amanda. He enjoys baseball, canoeing, and fly fishing.


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