Robert Wallace: Books and Brown vs. Board

May 27, 2014 

My first bookstore experience was in a strip-mall. It sold trinkets and other whatnots, greeting cards and posters, along with books.

I was a 16-year-old teenager when I discovered the bookstore. The entire side wall was for books. It was a vast wall full of “classics” that I would spend hours perusing. It was a time in my life when I wondered who I was destined to become, what I was meant to be, like all teenagers. And reading became my friend.

It was at this bookstore – I forget its name – that I first discovered Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner. I loved to pick up the Bantam Books, with the red or black rooster on its spine. Just the feel of the books excited me. Steinbeck’s titles and the pictures on the front of the books, pictures of Lennie and George, the Joads, migrant workers, those oppressed and exploited, and the dark Vintage spines of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” or “As I Lay Dying,” which signaled something psychological or enigmatic inside.

Back then, on cold, rainy days, I would spend hours looking at the books, pulling them off the shelves, reading the descriptions on the back. Sometimes I would sit on the floor, crossed-legged, a stack of books beside me, and often I would flip through them, reading whole pages, and the time would pass. The owners never rushed me. Sometimes they would come by and smile at me and say, “Finding everything?” or “Quite a stack you have there.” But that was more out of politeness than anything. Mostly they let me be.

It was at this bookstore I discovered the Russians; mostly Dostoyevsky, but Turgenev, and the shorter novels of Tolstoy too. The books were thick and had pictures, especially Dostoyevsky’s, of men on the front who appeared tormented by inner demons. I used to stuff these books in the back pockets of my jeans, the books inevitably protruding out of the pockets, and, with it, often a back that ached because of the awkward positions they created while sitting. For a while I carried “Crime and Punishment” and “Notes from Underground” in both back pockets, simultaneously flipping back and forth between Raskolnikov’s tortured soul and the “Underground man’s” monologue ramblings. I don’t know if balance helped my back or not, but I remember the excitement I felt carrying them around, just knowing that I was hauling whole worlds that were waiting to be discovered, and, hopefully, understood.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Parents of children in Topeka, Kansas brought forth the suit, claiming separate but equal was inherently unequal because segregation created a society which left the children of the underprivileged at a distinct disadvantage. They were right.

And where have we come in the past 60 years? Has anything changed? Has Durham changed?

The city of Durham is composed of 46 percent white and 54 percent non-white citizens, including over 86,000 African-Americans. Durham is improving in the proportion of adults with a high school diploma, though it still ranks behind the state average. So, too, are we improving in the numbers of African-Americans graduating from high school within four years. However, one in every three Hispanic students is dropping out before finishing. And while the Hispanic population in Durham continues to climb, we remain at risk of creating a whole class of citizenry wholly unprepared for life in the 21st century.

Without a doubt Brown v. Board of Education has improved the educational lives of millions of minority children. This is a good thing. However, recent research has shown that children, regardless of nationality, culture, or background, are reading for pleasure less and less. Many children do not read for pleasure at all. Many don’t even have books at home. But even the privileged, despite having the resources, aren’t reading for the pure joy of the experience. Reading for pleasure is an act of play. Much in the same way children from generations past were free to engage in activities of their own choosing outdoors, reading for pleasure does the same for the mind that free play used to do for children’s bodies i.e. it engages them, it teaches them empathy, and it sets in motion the foundation for all sorts of learning and development. We must encourage our children to read. This is all our responsibility.

Even today I still get a tingle when I enter a bookstore. When I go to The Regulator Bookshop, I enter with an open mind, browsing through the fiction, non-fiction, and literary journals. To look upon their shelves is as much an act of self-discovery, as it is discovering something I didn’t know within the pages of a book. For that is what reading can teach us; it can teach us something about someone else, but, often, it teaches us more about ourselves.

Please write to Robert Wallace at bwallace@nc.rr.com

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