Thank you, Mr. Pratt

August 14, 2005|By James M. Abraham

IN 1882, businessman Enoch Pratt gave the city of Baltimore enough money to open a central library and four branches. He added an endowment of $833,333.33 to keep his bequest solvent.

Mr. Pratt died in 1896; I was born 60 years later. About seven years after that, a new branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system opened around the corner from my home.

I lived in the central part of Baltimore's southwest side, on an alley street surrounded by rowhouses. To get to the new library, my three sisters and I walked through an even smaller L-shaped alley to reach Payson Street. But once we turned the corner, the land dropped away, leaving the low, tan brick building suspended like a mirage above the endless tarred roofs and chimneys of the southwest Baltimore skyline.

Mr. Pratt and I never met. But he knew me. He thought of guys like me whose lives would be changed radically by the power of the word. He gave his money to build libraries like the one in which I taught my youngest sister to write her name.

On the eastern wall of the children's section of the Hollins-Payson branch was a mural of kids' favorites such as Robin Hood and Anansi the Spider. I worked my way from there to the young adult section on the western wall. I remember the day I slipped over to the adult section, where the lurid cover of C. S. Forester's Hornblower and the Atropos caught my fancy.

The librarian looked skeptical when I presented the book, and told me I was too young to check it out. I told her I could read it; she opened a page at random and pointed to a passage. I peered over the desk, reading aloud about how the rain lashed Hornblower's able Lieutenant Bush as he climbed through a maze of rigging. She smiled, and sent me home with the book. I built my heroes with books from that library, even as I learned of a world far removed from my part of town.

But the library also helped me learn the practical application of a good book.

A few years after the branch opened, my parents split up. My mother, who had dropped out of high school to marry my father, found herself supporting four kids. She knew she needed some education to lift us out of welfare, so she went back to high school. Soon our home was filled with my mother's high school texts such as English Workshop, Padraic Colum's Trojan War stories and typing manuals.

Soon I began reading my mother's books. I watched as she graduated, got a safe government job and raised our standard of living. That job helped send me to college and on to a career as a journalist.

Now, as a man, I know Enoch Pratt as he knew of me. He left a legacy that changed my life; I can do no less than pass on what he gave to me.

I began writing book reviews about 10 years ago in addition to my editorial-writing duties at the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat. I started a weekly book column in 2000 for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, where I worked for three years. I moved to the newspaper in Charlotte County, Fla., the Charlotte Sun-Herald, where I continued the book column and my opinion writing.

Although I loved journalism, I had always lived at the edges of that profession. I believed there were times a journalist should be just a fly on a wall, other times when we had to be flies in the soup. I believed journalists had just as much a responsibility to be involved community members as anyone else. Having to write about civics shouldn't give journalists a reason not to practice the subject.

Now I teach writing and reading workshops, coach writers and edit books.

Enoch Pratt understood that a richer community enriched him as well. I organize book events and volunteer for literacy efforts because I know the value of an informed and intellectually enriched community. If you're reading, I'll feel I have done my job. And Enoch Pratt, thank you for doing yours for me.

James M. Abraham is the author of Come Read With Me.

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