WASHINGTON, March 9, 2013 —While “Read Across America Day” ended a week ago, I hope reading itself, especially among young people, has not ended. That day made me think what a difference the love of reading made in my own life. It was a love that came about, however, as the result of a baseball error. Let me explain.
We didn’t read books in my home. My dad, who had a sixth-grade education, read the newspaper every day, but I never saw him hold a book.
The three R’s for my family were: Reading the newspaper, listening to the Radio, and Recounting stories around the table.
The one glaring exception to this sorry confession, however, were baseball books.
I did read baseball books. Any I could get my hands on. Especially those about the lives of ballplayers.
In junior high library class, I’d read any baseball book I could find on the shelves.
When those seemed to be all read up, I would pick an almanac off the shelf and turn to the baseball section.
There I’d read the records of players: their backgrounds and batting averages, their homeruns, hits, strikeouts, and errors.
Other than baseball books, though, none caught my fancy enough to sit down and spend an hour reading them.
My mother said I had “ants in my pants” because I couldn’t sit still and read.
Then in seventh grade I discovered the best baseball book of all. It was a paperback called “Bill Stern’s Favorite Baseball Stories.” Almost every Friday on the radio I listened to Bill Stern’s “Colgate Sports Newsreel.” He told stories about famous athletes, which always had unusual twists to them. Next day I would repeat these stories to my Chestnut Street buddies as we walked uptown to the Palace Theater.
One afternoon during an eighth-grade library period, an error occurred. One which would change my life for good.
I discovered what seemed to be a book about home runs, odd home runs.
I grabbed it off the shelf as the noisy bell ended school for that day.
Rushing the book to the counter, I told Miss Paxton, the assistant librarian I wanted to check out this book. “When you decide to read, you really decide to read, don’t you?” she said. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what she meant.
At home I eagerly opened the book and read the title on the inside page: “The Odyssey of Homer.”
When I started reading the book, I found it wasn’t about odd home runs. It wasn’t about baseball at all. It was about a man named Odysseus who travels the seas on a ship.
It was about a monster with one big eye in the middle of his forehead and about an island of beautiful women who sang songs so lovely that Odysseus ordered his sailors to plug their ears and strap him to the mast so the ship would not sail toward the voices and be destroyed in the stormy sea.
I read on. I read and I read and I read, until I read “The End.”
I had read a book. A whole book. By myself, to myself, for myself.
In that wisp of time, my attitude about books and reading changed. Reading was not boring. It was, in fact, exciting. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed … learning.
My life was changed in an instant. I would go from book to book. Tenth-grade became a fun and exciting place. Reading led me to writing, and in the second semester I wrote and delivered a speech for an upcoming speech contest. I won first prize. And shortly after that, I became editor of the school paper, and I graduated high school with honors.
Whereas I had previously planned to drop out of school, I now went on to college where I won the oratorical contest. Later, I went on to study for a master’s degree at a university.
Thereafter, I was published in numerous books, magazines and newspapers. And baseball? Dozens of my baseball stories, articles, and letters have been published in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more than a few books.
So, as in baseball, sometimes a rally starts with an error.
And that error connected me to what has been called, “the greatest adventure story of all time.” Perhaps no other book would have produced the effect of this particular work. For, as W. H. D. Rouse states in the preface of his fine English translation of the Odyssey: “It enchants every man, lettered or unlettered, and every boy who hears it.”
I was a boy fortunate enough to hear it, and, unlike the sailors of Odysseus, my ears were open. I heard the music of the spheres and willingly yielded to the siren call of learning.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary news commentator Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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