George Pyle: The world is closed, so open a book

(Eric Risberg | AP file photo) In this March 13 photo, people are reflected in the window of the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach as they walk along Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. The famous independent bookseller was in dire financial shape because of the coronavirus outbreak and asked for help. Within days of starting a GoFundMe campaign last week seeking $300,000, the store received more than $400,000, from thousands of contributors.

After another widespread and sometimes deadly epidemic, a little boy in a tiny Kansas town spent large parts of his childhood in and out of the hospital or flat on his back in a body cast.

My father, born in 1927, contracted polio at an early age. The withering of muscles that accompanied the disease did not follow the same pattern in every person, and surgery to repair or compensate for dysfunctional or weakened limbs was improvised on a case-by-case basis.

In my father’s case, the goal was to keep his hip joint from popping out of its socket with every alternative step. The surgeon needed two tries to make it work. Each followed by a long period of immobility.

In addition to arming my father with one of the best “When I was your age...” tales of suffering and woe, there was one part of the story he was pretty proud of.

Due to all of those surgeries and recoveries, he missed nearly all of the fifth grade. But the school did not make him take that grade over again. They even skipped him on past the sixth grade as well. He went on to graduate from high school one year early, leaving the class he should have been in to consist of a single student. (I told you it was a tiny town.)

So how did he manage that?

He had lots and lots of time on his hands. So he read. He read just about every book in the local library, books for children and for grown-ups, and read an entire set of encyclopedias, cover to cover.

It was the acquisition of a habit that stood him in good stead over the years to come. In college, he would play hooky from class a lot, borrow notes from a roommate, cram for the final exam the night before and do so well on the test that the Western Civilization Department hired him as a proctor for that class in the next semester.

He taught school for a couple of years -- one year in a small elementary school, another in the political science department at another university -- and managed by just making sure he had read further ahead in the textbook than had his students.

So, now, when we don’t have a few people stuck in bed, but a whole lot of people stuck at home, many of them missing school, the lesson still applies.

Everybody needs to read. And read. A lot. All kinds of books. Books that are fun and books that have meaning. Books at, below and above each person’s official grade level. Print books and e-books. All those books you always meant to read and claimed you already had.

Now that Utah has decided that the curve of the coronavirus won’t be bent enough to allow public schools to open again this academic year, this becomes all that much more important.

Teachers and students and parents have put great effort into downloading, learning and employing all manner of online communications and learning tools. Maybe too many.

There is reason to worry that, under such circumstances, many students will fall off the track, miss important lessons, make very uneven progress as they move to the next grade and toward high school graduation.

That is particularly true of those young people who may lack both the robust internet connection needed to take advantage of all those e-bells and iWhistles and the parental support to stick with the program.

But the most important part of education, now and always, is simple literacy. Reading and writing that gets more complex and deeper with age. It keeps the brain gears turning and ready to step into whatever specialized learning might show up later, when all this is over.

Biographies and comic books. Spy novels and how-to. Fairy tales and philosophy. Silently and very loud indeed. Writing a journal and scribbling notes in the margins.

While we wait for the world to reopen, we’ve got a whole universe of knowledge and feelings to catch up on.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is up to most of one book over the last four weeks.


Twitter, @debatestate