Using the power of imagination in children

Special to The TelegraphJuly 6, 2014 

Summer is flying by, so let us not let pass the chance to give kids in our lives an installment on the gift that, more than almost any other, will transform their futures for the better.

Although as a child I seldom left my family’s lower-class Baltimore neighborhood, I vividly I recall my travels and adventures of the armchair variety. My only actual travel involved spending a month each summer at my widowed grandmother’s house across the Chesapeake Bay on the remote Eastern Shore.

With no one my own age within miles, no television and little radio, and nothing much to do except wander through abandoned farm buildings and walk along the railroad tracks, these summers should have been stultifying. But also there in the quiet old house were shelves of books that had belonged to my grandfather and to my mother when she was a girl. I devoured them all. The now-forgotten “Grace Harlowe” series transported me to the high Sierras, while Arthur Guy Empey’s “Over the Top” carried me across the ocean on a troopship to serve with the British infantry in the ghastly trenches of World War I France. Like the wail of the railroad whistle in the night, these books -- unsuitable as they may have been -- carried me to places far beyond my experience.

In today’s world -- where most of the populace is overwhelmed by the flood of digital technology transforming our lives -- it is far more difficult, even with e-books, for children to experience the wonders of reading. And yet, it is essential that they do. To a large degree, the quality of their lives depends upon it. The kids raised with books are likely to do well and school and to ultimately become lifelong learners.

There are few gifts that one can give a child that will bring greater rewards than a love of reading. At my house still today there are books stacked here and there, waiting to be read.

And while my wife and I have largely succeeded in passing on our passion for reading to our children, it has not always been easy, and in the face of the digital onslaught, it grows steadily more difficult. To the extent that data and some forms of “knowledge” might be reducible to discrete bytes, digital technology is fabulously useful for conveying (and even testing) “information,” but such is not the case with what we term “understanding.”

I say, “Hooray for summer.” My family sometimes spends a few days at Lighthouse Point on Tybee Island, and in the early morning we sit on the balcony and read, watching the massive cargo ships pass down Tybee Roads. The sight of these vessels, outward bound to foreign ports, transports me to my childhood and memories of my father, who left school after the eighth grade to follow the sea, and more than once visited the port of Savannah. In my mind’s eye I can almost see a brown-haired young sailor standing on deck, so powerful is the human imagination.

Indeed, the power of the imagination more than anything else explains why the ability to read well -- and at as young an age as possible -- opens the doors to much that is valuable about human experience. Long before the advent of smartphones and tablets, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote of this transformative concept:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.

In our time, a battle rages in the schools about testing and especially about the Common Core. Much invective is aired about the nature of this testing but very little about what content is to be tested. Voices are raised about student debt. As these battles rage -- most often to the detriment of students -- it falls to the parents, grandparents and others to endow the kids in their life with the love of reading, and summer is an optimal time. While I would like to think that my youngest child will be poring over some of the classics, what ultimately matters is that she reads. As Marshall McLuhen might put it, in this case, the medium truly is a huge part of the message.

It’s hard to find someone today who cannot read, but it’s as simple as turning to the person next to you to find someone who seldom reads more than a screen-full of text. Can such a “reader” fully grasp the complexities and nuances of the human condition?

Think back on the books that fired your imagination as a child. Reflect on that list for a time and then decide if this mental process known as reading is worthy of passing on. Indeed, ask yourself if the fabric of our American culture can long endure without it.

Larry Fennelly is an arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be reached at larryfennelly@avantguild.com.

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