In the beginning was the Word

Tom Nugent

December 18, 1991|By Tom Nugent

IN THE BEGINNING was the Word . . . and also the dogwood tree, gnarled with the years, that rose in a tangle of branches and blossoms to loom high above our backyard.

I was 10. A fifth-grader in Tallahassee. The year was 1953, and I had just discovered the magic of books. Home each afternoon from school, I raced through my chores and then carried "While The Clock Ticked" out to the flowering dogwood.

In a flash, I climbed to my perch on one of the upper branches.

Safe at last, I leaned back against the scarred trunk, stretched comfortably . . . and flipped to the beginning of Chapter 5. The Hardy Boys were in serious trouble! How would they escape from that cave? Would "One-Eyed Francisco" discover that they'd intercepted the telegram from Boston -- and were already assisting their dad (Fenton Hardy, the famous detective) in his search for the missing jade dragon?

While The Clock Ticked!

There were at least 20 volumes in the "Hardy Boys" series, and I had vowed to read every one. Snug on my branch, safe from the adult madness that so frequently invaded my tiny world, I had discovered a treasure infinitely more valuable than the missing jade dragon: the local public library.

Imagine, if you can, a world without television. (It would be several years before Channel 6 began to beam "live" pictures across north Florida.) Imagine a world in which the discovery of a thrilling book -- the Hardy Boys, or "Scaramouche," or "Treasure Island" -- was a priceless ticket into a realm of vivid, heart-stopping adventure.

And language? The Word? As the years passed, and I kept on reading, kept on climbing that dogwood tree, the blazing lingo of a hundred unforgettable scenes would imprint itself like a laser on the overheated circuits of my brain.

Hemingway: In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. ("A Farewell to Arms")

Fitzgerald: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Gentle reader, go back and examine that Fitzgerald quotation. Read it aloud: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Does it rip you? Does it drill you? Does it send you, shot from the mighty cannon of Language, 14 miles deep into Anne Arundel County?

Books!

When television finally reached the red-clay and scrub-pine world of north Florida in 1957, I muttered to myself: "Hell . . . that's nothing but pictures."

Well, I picked up the paper the other day, and I stared at headline: "Library crisis drives mayor to order report."

The story told how the city of Baltimore, strapped for funds, had recently slashed $1.3 million from the Enoch Pratt Free Library's $16 million annual budget -- a fiscally desperate move that could permanently close eight of the 28 neighborhood library branches.

I threw the paper to the floor.

Then I went to see David Yaffe, a board member of Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a 1,600-member local civic organization dedicated to supporting and improving the city's century-old public library system.

I told him about the dogwood tree and the missing jade dragon.

Yaffe, who has spent the past few months working around the clock to protect the threatened branches, nodded sympathetically.

Then he went on to make a very interesting -- and practical -- point.

He warned me that there's a lot more at stake here than just the "magic of reading." He explained that any threat to the huge Pratt system (2 million books; 600,000 periodicals; 2.5 million government documents) also represents a dangerous threat to our standard of living, thus to the "quality" of our lives.

The stakes here, in other words, are enormous.

And it's real stupid, said Yaffe, to try to save a few dollars by gradually shutting down the city's major literacy resource.

"At a time," groaned this bespectacled book lover, "when Asian countries are making mighty strides in literacy and education . . . when the former Soviet world is having a new birth of freedom and information . . . and when the rest of Europe is uniting, America is closing its libraries.

"But I really don't think people in Taiwan and Malaysia are going to say: 'Oh, gee, the U.S. is having a recession. It can't support schools and libraries, so we're just going to sit on our hands.' "

He paused. "I just wish people would understand that it's in their own self-interest to spend a few dollars on books and libraries.

"Because our real enemy here isn't selfishness.

"It's ignorance."

Tom Nugent teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where a version of this article appeared in the student newspaper, the Retriever.

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