Pleasures of the page

Since the fifth grade, I have had summer reading lists. My early lists were handed to me by my teachers, the books including classics such as Jane Eyre, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights, Main Street, The House of the Seven Gables and Robinson Crusoe. Some of the works, Mill on the Floss most notably, were rough going. I suffered through them because my teachers insisted that they were "good" for me.

But my teachers didn't know I had a secret reading life. My father, a sanitation worker, brought home discarded comic books, magazines, newspapers and pulps such as Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly. And my grandfather, a pastor, gave me a color-illustrated Bible, which I read with great pleasure and awe.

One evening, my father plunked a copy of Reading for Pleasure, Bennett Cerf's anthology of select writings, on the coffee table. The red and black book with gold lettering caught my attention. It was 769 pages, and the word "pleasure" in the title intrigued me. I was familiar with Cerf, the wittiest player on What's My Line?, a popular CBS television quiz show. He also was a co-founder and publisher of Random House.

Reading for Pleasure was a portable library of great writers. A few weeks ago, as I organized my books at home, I dusted off that old copy of Reading for Pleasure.

When had I last opened it? On the first page of the "Introduction," I had underlined, so many years ago, Cerf's words: "This book is a guided tour of some of the high spots I've encountered in a lifetime of reading. … This is not a collection of pieces you ought to enjoy … but pieces you will enjoy. I will stake my reputation as a publisher, a columnist, and an editor on that!"

As a child, I had taken Cerf at his word and plunged into the book. Now, thumbing through the work nearly 50 years later, I see that I had underlined enjoyable passages in each selection. Following are five samples.

Love in Wartime, Irwin Shaw: "The trains were dank and smelly with the ghost of the rain that the riders had brought in with them from the streets above. There was a taste of iron in the unchanging air and the bosomy girls who advertised toothpaste and laxatives and brassieres on the garish cards seemed foolish and improbable in the light of the dusty lamps."

Indian Summer of a Forsyte, John Galsworthy: "She would understand that he just wanted to give her a little pleasure; for the idea that she should guess he had this itch to see her was instinctively unpleasant to him; it was not seemly that one so old should go out of his way to see beauty, especially in a woman."

Mr. Morgan, James Michener: "We never understood what he did with his time. He didn't write. He never read books. He didn't like to fish nor did he sit and yarn with people about old times. He was a man who lived entirely within himself. He did not even take pleasure in his glowing wahine, who always walked five steps behind him when they went to the beach for a swim."

A Table at Ciro's, Budd Schulberg: "Under the table a small, slender leg moved slowly, with a surreptitious life of its own, until it pressed meaningfully against his. Jenny had never slept with anybody except Bill. She was frightened, but not as frightened as she was of living the rest of her life in Hollywood as the wife of a grip in a bungalow court."

Auntie Mame and the Southern Belle, Patrick Dennis: "The bride was presented officially to her new relatives when they appeared en masse at a giant barbecue the following Sunday. At noon we were on the veranda. Auntie Mame was looking lovely and fragile in yellowed dotted swiss with a big leghorn hat, and Uncle Beau stood next to her in his ice cream suit, proud as a peacock."

My hope here was to convey that we should provide ways for children to read for pleasure. One effective way, as my father did, is to place a large variety of interesting works around children for them to discover what they enjoy reading on their own.

Pleasure is the key. Acclaimed author Philip Pullman says it best: "Pleasure is not a frivolous extra, but the very heart and essence of what reading is all about."

Pleasures of the page 07/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 6:31am]

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