The Gift of Reading

“Not being a sound sleeper (for book-loving men seldom are), he elected to use as a bedroom one of the two chambers which opened at either side into the library. The arrangement enabled him to beguile many a sleepless hour amongst the books …” — E. G. Swain, “Bone to His Bone”Box of BooksRecently, my daughter and son-in-law took their extended family of twelve on a trip to our home country of South Africa. I went through my library and gathered up about forty- five books, ranging in genre from memoir to fiction, but all with the basic theme of having been written by African authors. I suggested that the travelers each take one book and pass them amongst one another while traveling through South Africa in order to get a better understanding of the country they were visiting. One member of the family chose to take a book along with them. One. One. Apparently, reading, particularly in the context of life circumstances, is fast becoming a lost art.

Perhaps that is why this quote struck me as profoundly important in the context of this ghost story but also in the context of current society. When last did we hear, “I couldn’t sleep last night so I re-read Oscar Wilde’s The Gentle Giant. It was wonderful!” Instead, we often hear, “I couldn’t sleep last night so I binge watched Downton Abbey. Got through four episodes. It was wonderful! But, man, am I tired today!”

I am guilty of this. I wish I weren’t. I should know better.

My Dad, a relatively uneducated man, by today’s definition, but one of the cleverest men I have ever met, often refused to have a “bedside table” in his home. Instead, he accumulated two stacks of books and propped his cup of tea on one stack while he read his way through another. Our home was filled with books. Books were considered education.

The generator that provided electricity in our home was unceremoniously turned off at 9 pm, plunging us all into darkness.  Not 9:01. Not 8:59. 9 pm. There was no TV, no radio. Just books. I sometimes fell asleep before the 9 pm deadline while reading, but more often than not, I was infuriated with my Dad when he turned off that generator.

My half-sister and I shared a room and very quickly discovered “torches,” known to Americans as “flashlights,” and so, we began reading under our covers once Dad had checked in with us and said goodnight. Of course, he used his own torch to get back to his bedroom where I’m pretty confident he continued to read as well.  Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys kept me well entertained until the small hours of the morning. Nancy Drew taught me to be strong, to never stop asking questions, and to demand answers. Once I became a teenager, I had the privilege of being sent to boarding school where I spent my evenings reading archaic, pro-apartheid, questionable text books…and Jackie Collins novels. At boarding school, we were allowed minimal exposure to television but unlimited access to the library, so, once again, reading formed the foundation of my nights.

I miss my Dad. He’d turn off the TV. He would make me sleep close to books. He would make me yearn to read once again. He would tell me this is an honorable way to spend sleepless nights.

He’d be right.

Louise Hyland is an English major at Concordia University Irvine