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Be Well Read To Improve Your Writing


Be Well Read To Improve Your Writing

Recently I was taking a road trip up the northern California/Oregon coast. When I reached Lincoln City, the weather had turned cloudy, cool and damp. Instead of combing the beach I headed for antique shops along the main street through town.

In the last ten years of my life, when I browse in these stores, I see not only items from my parents’ home but stuff I used to have way back when. A part of me feels an attachment to kitchen bowls, maple end tables and pitchers from my past. On the other hand, if such items are generally referred to as “antiques” I must be considered one too. Am I really that old?

In the back corner of a shop, there were shelves of old books, some with ragged spines or spotted with mildew. I was scanning the shelves to see if the Hardy Boys series or Nancy Drew were stacked there. I didn’t find them but my eye caught a stack of books that looked like small encyclopedias. I picked one book up and it was one of the Harvard Classics. My jaw dropped.

Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, our breakfast room was my parents’ library with floor to ceiling shelves filled with hardback books. On the top shelves was a long row of black hardbound books. They stood out from all the other books with colorful spines. My mother pointed them out to me and referred to them as the “Harvard Classics” that meant nothing to me at the time. The story she told was part of our family history.

My father was born in the early 1890’s and as a 14 year old, he ran away from home and, lying about his age, he joined the military in the Spanish-American War. After that, he joined the Army and fought oversees in The Great War. He loved the military but had been injured by bomb fragments and was discharged after the war was over.

Without a high school education, he got a job with an insurance company and began to educate himself. He purchased the Harvard Classics that had 52 volumes and read every page. My mother glowed with pride as she told me his story about his love of reading and how he advanced his knowledge and career on his own. My father died when I was eight so I never had the chance to ask him how he got so smart.

I was a very poor reader through high school and never was curious enough to climb up the shelves to see what these “special” books were. After I had left home, my mother moved from the home where I grew up and disposed of the entire library. I don’t think at that time I would have been interested in any of our books or have had room in my studio apartment.

But in that antique shop, I was interested in what was contained in the Harvard Classics. The copyright date was 1909. I flipped through the pages; the type was very small. My first thought was there is a lot of writing on each page and it would take quite a while to read a page or chapter or volume. The 52 volumes contained works from authors I recognized and other I had no idea who they were. For example, the volumes held works of Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Virgil, Voltaire, Homer, Darwin, Aesop, Grimm, Milton, Tennyson, Homer, Greek Drama, Faust, Dante. This was not light reading. The Harvard Classics were assembled by Charles W. Eliot who was the president of Harvard University at the time. He believed in a liberal education and was devoted to daily reading. The 52 volumes take up five feet of shelf space.

I sat on the floor of the antique shop in Oregon and pictured my father as a young man in his center city apartment spending evenings absorbing material he never had in school. I knew he was well read but never imagined to what extent. No wonder my mother was so proud to tell his story. She called him “a self-made man.”

To become a better writer we all have to read a variety of fiction and non-fiction. That’s a “given” in this profession. I don’t know if I would want to tackle the entire Harvard Classics. Would the style of writing three or four hundred ago be helpful to me in this century? What would I learn? How would I benefit? I have no idea. But I do know that my father enjoyed them and kept the entire set on the top shelf in our library. He must have seen the value in them.

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