Thursday, August 4, 2011

A lesson Richard taught me

In 1998, we moved back to the US from Venezuela, where I’d been working for three and a half years. During our time there, we had collected a lot of books – church books, children’s books, reference books and others. It has been this way in each of our overseas assignments: each trip back to the US included an expensive trip to the bookstore since we could not get English reading material in our host country. (In Japan, we could buy English books, but they were very, very expensive, so we tried very hard to stay out of the English bookshop in Hiroshima.)

As we were preparing to move, I wondered about moving all those books home. Logistically it was no issue: the company was moving us and there was certainly room in our shipping container. But I thought about the church members we’d come to know there. We attended a local ward and new some new members and others who had been members for most of their lives. Quite a few read English and others were anxious to learn. Leaving behind a library of books would be a blessing to our new friends.

So we determined to give away most of our books. I took them to church one weeknight in the trunk of my car, and we invited anyone who was interested to take what interested them. I had underestimated their enthusiasm. One long-time member who had not traveled outside Venezuela practically caressed the paperback volumes of the History of the Church. Her husband was in the stake presidency and they were both great students of church history and the scriptures. (Every talk I heard him give included at least one great story from the Old Testament.)

Youth were excited to have novels in English with which they could practice, and mothers were happy to have picture books for their children.

In the end, all the books were taken. I’m sure some were soon forgotten, but others, I hope, were well used.

I doubt it would have occurred to me to offer them had it not been for Richard Ellsworth. Richard was a professor of English at BYU, and a cousin to my mother-in-law. He passed away recently, and Margaret Blair Young’s touching recollections over at BCC caused me to reflect on him this week. I took just one class from Richard – a 19th century American lit class – toward the end of my English degree. But I also had the good fortune, with my wife, to visit him and his wife in their home.

I remember sometime during our semester together, Richard counseled our class not to keep all our college textbooks. He said as English majors, most of what we had was literature anyway, and it would easily be found in the library, so we need not schlep boxes of books across the country between graduate school and teaching appointments. I admit I was a little surprised. I would have expected a lit professor to treasure the books, but of course what he treasured was the literature itself.

I still love to hold a book in my hand. I have not made the leap to Kindle- and iWhatever-fueled electronic reading (except for blogs and emails, which I still do from my laptop). In our community we have a great library, and we are regular patrons (which just about keeps up with my 11-year-old daughter’s 10-book-a-week habit). We still buy some books that we know we want to have for reference.

But, as Richard taught me: it’s the literature, not the books.

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