Mind's I: Reading part of our heritage, responsibility

By Helen P. Gross

I began writing this March 31, with a pen on a lined yellow pad — something I haven’t done since long before I bought my first Apple computer almost 30 years ago! And I continued my writing while stretched out on a bed at the Legacy Preston Hollow, where I’m rehabbing from a hip break.
So many things have changed for me personally; now, osteoporosis and an inner-ear problem affecting my balance have made me a double-danger fall risk. But I can still think, so I can still write. . . .
The day before I fell, I was thinking about the d’var Torah I’d been asked to deliver during tomorrow’s seventh-day Passover service. I hadn’t begun to write it, but I’d done a lot of thinking about it. And between thinking and the writing — which I’m doing now, sitting in a wheelchair in front of my computer — there was reading. There must always be lots of reading between thinking and writing.
Just a few days before my fall, I’d set up 33 figurines — about half of my collection of little girls reading — in a display at my local branch of the Dallas Public Library. I began amassing them when my daughter, now 55, turned 11 — the age at which I’d learned myself that I was indeed a writer, and that so much of writing rests on the back of reading. As I transitioned then from grade school to junior high, my father commandeered the autograph book in which I was collecting my classmates’ inscriptions, and on a page between the usual “Roses are Reds” he wrote: “Reading is not a mere means to life; reading is life itself.” And I never forgot.

Importance of text

People often ask me to name my favorite books. Once that was a hard question, but I know the answer now: All alone on an island, I would want with me my Bible (Masoretic text); Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” (enough meat to feed my mind for a lifetime); everything by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (wonderful, practical wisdom rooted in the most loving of Chassidic childhoods), and “Precious Bane,” the 19th-century Scottish novelist Mary Webb’s tale of a young girl’s pain and redemption.
I first read that last when I was 11 and battling a trauma of my own. During another low point of life many years later, I wandered into a used bookstore in Chicago and encountered it again, in a leather-bound first edition. There’s an old saying: If you have only two pennies, spend one for bread, the other for a book. I plunked down $40 for that book and was short of bread for a while, but have never regretted paying the price.
So this would have been my Pesach message at shul, but instead, to all of you: We are the people of The Book, of many Books. This week: the Haggadah, the telling of our beginning. Every week: the Torah, our guide to the laws of living. We are people who must read, because that is our responsibility, our destiny, our salvation.
Long before computers, when I was hospitalized for something a lot less serious than this, I moaned to my editor of the time that without a typewriter, I couldn’t produce my weekly column. And she said, “I bet if you just use pen and paper, your writing would come out very close to your usual length.” So I did. And it did! And so, my friends, has this!
Please — all of you — have a memorable Pesach this year, for happier reasons than I will remember mine. And if you can, stop by the Skillman-Southwestern Library where, just to your right, inside the front door, you’ll see many of my little girls, perched on glass shelves, reading away. I’m hoping they’ll help inspire a new generation of 11-year-olds to love books, and to continue learning from them for the rest of their lives.

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