(Thomas Froese photo)
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, June 23, 2018)
My children get a kick out of it, my barefooted ways. I just don’t like to wear shoes. Even when I drive. Too many years in Africa, I suppose. Now that it’s summer, all the more.
It reminds me of our relationship with books. There’s a holiness there. Or there should be. But are we losing the sense of it? I think we are.
I wish it was different. For our souls. For our inner child, that spirit part of us that’s nourished by running barefoot through fields of wonder.
I recently read there are about 130 million books floating around the world. I read it online. Do you know what I’m saying?
I have some of those books. Several hundred, I guess. They’re around the house. On shelves. In totes. On my bedside table. They sit and I look at them but I have things to do and my eyes are heavy and the gates to those golden fields, too often, remain unopened.
I recently read (again online) a writing hero of mine lament this. In his home, some 5,000 books fill 27 tall bookcases. They’ve shaped his life. He used to read three a week. Now he misses that. Those diving adventures are now too often replaced by what he calls the jet-skiing of reading his screen, just bouncing around the surface of things.
I’m not a doomsdayer on it, this change in our reading habits. For centuries, humans communicated important matters of the day orally, word of mouth, often generation to generation with remarkable precision. When handwritten books came along (long before the revolution of the printing press) fears came too. “Why do we need books?” Change is the only constant in life and, despite our anxieties, it will come, usually for good.
But it’s books – or, story to be exact – that will always nourish us like nothing else. In the beginning, after all, to quote the ancient scripture, was the Word. Not the microchip. We each have our personal story. More so, in a profound and mysterious way, we’re also each a story, one that lives and moves and has its being in a larger narrative.
Of course story can be explored electronically. There’s nothing inherently evil with a pixel. But it’s harder because of the dopamine rush that often comes with life online. That’s what you get, what I get, this drug-like chemical reaction in the brain, when we bounce around meaningless factoids, or look for short-lived validation from, say, social media.
Dopamine, that on-screen fix, is today’s heroine. So we’re distracted. Droopy-eyed. Malnourished. Cut off. And, really, what does this mean for the children?
In other parts of the world it’s different. Books are still touched. Felt. Smelt. Children take off their shoes for books, like they’re on holy ground. Then they’ll read, “Fati was a little girl who ran like the wind, who loved to laugh, and who always tried to do as she was told.”
Michelle Jean, the former Governor General of Canada, read this one day in Ghana after she took her own shoes off. She was visiting a library built by Kathy Knowles, a Canadian. Long earlier, Kathy had taken a basket of books to some local Ghana children. To them, it was the world. So Kathy brought more, then, over the years, built seven libraries in Ghana’s capital region of Accra.
Such riches for the poorest of children. I’m reading about it in a book called The Library Tree. It tells of this: the nourishment, the shade, the full beauty and joy of bringing reading to a generation of African children.
The summer reading is a gift from American friends we just visited, former neighbours we knew from our shared time in Uganda. Our children had run through the banana fields together.
It’s a good time for such a gift. Four seasons into my family’s transition to full-time life in Canada, we’re still routinely asked how it’s all going. “Fine,” I always say when people ask about my own state of mind. And if it’s a moment of honesty, I’ll add “But it’s been harder than I thought it would be.” The truth is, I want to be barefoot more.
This summer, with one book or another, I will. I hope you will too.