Friday, May 9, 2014

Books and duty

It is a man's duty to have books.
Henry Ward Beecher

Students may have a duty to study their books. Book reviewers and critics probably have a duty to actually read the books they write about. Librarians have a duty to properly care for the books in their collections and to add as many new books as budgets will allow.Yet as much as I love books, I had never thought of ownership of them as being a duty. A privilege? Yes. A pleasure? Certainly. But a duty? This idea never occurred to me until I read a few lines from 19th century preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher in the A Passion for Books.

In the same essay, Beecher writes, "A home without books is like a room without windows." To me, that makes perfect sense, yet I am sure many people live contented lives without books or without ever opening those few they do own. These include some with college educations, perhaps even teachers who never read books other than the ones they actually teach from. Some people like to have books around, others don't. Are the latter somehow shirking their duty?

Yet I can't dismiss Beecher's idea altogether. He begins to make sense when he brings children into the picture. "No man has the right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them," he writes. "It is wrong to his family. He cheats them. Children learn to read by being in the presence of books."

One's duty, therefore, is to one's family, not to books. Just having books around the house can make an impression on children. Seeing their parents reading those books can make an even bigger impression.

I rarely saw my father with a book in his hand, but he must have read a lot when he was a boy because he had quite a number of books in the house that made quite an impression on me in my youth. I still have most of those books, including some Horatio Algers. As far as I am concerned, my father did his duty.

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