By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Separately in recent weeks, two friends about my age told me similar stories from their youth.
They attended grade schools far, far apart, but both remembered – clearly remembered – a teacher placing a book in their hands with a simple admonition: Read this.
Neither friend had a career strictly as a writer, but both – out of all their classroom days – recalled the moment. They termed it transformative.
It happened to me, too.
At H.V. Cooper High School in Vicksburg, the fastest route from the third floor classrooms to the first cafeteria was through the center of the second floor library. One day, while making my way from algebra (which I didn’t understand) to food (which I did), Mrs. Cook, the librarian, grabbed my arm as I sped by.
I thought she was going to tell me to slow down, but she didn’t. Her other hand held a new book in a maroon dust jacket. She swung the book, slapped it in my midsection the way a quarterback hands off a football. “Read this,” she said.
It was “North Toward Home” by Willie Morris of Yazoo City. I did as Mrs. Cook said.
By the time I finished the book, I still had no idea what I would do to earn a living as a grownup, but I knew it would involve describing things, explaining things, telling stories.
Ten years later I was a junior instructor at Ole Miss. The alphabet was king when it came to the wall of memo cubbies in the Department of Journalism. Faculty rank didn’t matter. So my name, Mitchell, was on the cubby next to that of Willie Morris, then writer-in-residence.
Each day, Morris’ mailbox would be stuffed with letters from fans and aspiring writers. Often there were packages, clearly manuscripts from people hoping Morris would read their work and set them on the path to fame and riches.
I sought out Morris and told him that reading “North Toward Home,” the story of his growing-up years, had lured me into the world of words. He smiled, shrugged and ambled down the hall.
A few suggestions
Usually about this time of year I take a break and offer this column’s faithful followers (both of them) a suggested summer reading list.
I have a few. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is required reading for all incoming students at Ole Miss, where I’m working again, this fall. It’s great. So is Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Skloot and Wilkerson are journalists by training and experience, so their books have the same compelling rhythm as Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus” that tracks the prosecution of Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs.
For those interested in what former President George W. Bush was really thinking as his popularity nosedived, his book, “Decision Points,” offers his perspective.
But instead of offering more detail about a few books that happen to appeal to me, here’s a challenge, especially to nonreaders and young people: Do yourself a favor by finding a book you like.
Not having time to read is an excuse that doesn’t work. Everybody has the same 24 hours in every day. Each of us has at least a few minutes for discretionary use.
Access is not an excuse. Kindles and iPads and even cell phones have book apps. Expense is not an excuse. E-books and used books are super-cheap. Libraries have always been free.
A word regarding youthful readers: Schools and some of the aforementioned libraries give prizes during summer based on the number of books a child claims to have read. While the emphasis on reading is commendable, the emphasis on quantity over quality is sorely misplaced. It does no good for Junior to skim 300 or 400 books and come away with nothing. Much better to read only one, if that one caused his soul to grow, his understanding to expand.
Many years after “North Toward Home” I asked Mrs. Cook, a small woman, why she stuck it in my gut that day. “It fit you,” she said, and, like Morris himself, walked away.
I don’t know why or whether my friends’ teachers selected specific books for them, but I suspect they did.
Teachers – good teachers – are like that.
Everybody’s different. Books are not one-size-fits-all.
Those who’ve had bad experiences with reading should not be turned off for good. Keep exploring.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.