I grew up in a situation of poverty and abuse. There were beatings, and years of drunkenness. Cops who came in the night, broken furniture and plates, clothes that never fit and cupboards that were never filled.
It was in a small town, on the edge of society, where people seldom dreamed or changed, where the future was dark and uncertain.
That’s where I grew up.
Where I struggled to keep my head above a suffocating hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air.
Where I found escape in a book, or a paper, or anywhere that words strung together and created a conversation I could use to drown out the dark din all around me.
I realize fewer people read today, that the decades since my own childhood have dumbed down the written word and distracted the youthful mind from its diversion and uplift. I know things have changed, but at their core, I don’t believe they have.
I still believe the best ladder is a book.
And the crucial skill is the ability to read.
It lifted Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington from the mental chains of slavery, it allowed Wilbur and Orville Wright to slip loose the bonds of earth, and reading ultimately gave Laura Ingalls Wilder the power to tell her story to millions and generations.
It is a tool and a weapon, a spaceship and a fortress, a place to hide and a way to conquer.
And while it is a gift, it is not free.
Reading is an acquired skill, an ability you must develop. You can be invited and prodded, coached and taught, but if you don’t pick it up and apply yourself, if you don’t try and try and try some more, you will come up short. Marks on a paper are meaningless unless you have equipped your mind to understand and think, to comprehend and utilize.
But you can do it. There is no question you can do it. And there is no limit to how far you can take it.
To read, you just have to read. It’s kind of like walking. You take a step, and maybe you fall. But you take another step, and in time you fall less often. And in more time, you run and leap and race.
And in reading you find a fluency that frees your tongue, that empowers your vocabulary, and gives strength to your voice.
You find answers to problems, examples to follow, temptations to avoid, adventures to pursue, a career to take up.
And you find in reading the ability to set your own course, to overcome the obstacles of your upbringing and to make the future of your choosing.
When you read, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of you. It doesn’t matter if they understand you or respect you or even notice you. When you read, you enrich and enlarge an internal world where you are safe and free, where you are in charge, where you can have control in an uncontrollable world.
But it’s not just a dreamer’s escape, it’s not some fantasy land without application in the real world. The ability to read, the commitment to read, the desire to read, is the key to your future. From the living you make to the things you believe to the people you vote for, reading is your way up and out.
Reading can improve your grades, it can get you into the service or college, it can separate you from those who wish but won’t work, from those who can think but not express. Reading is how you broaden your skills and sharpen your mind. Reading is how you win.
Reading is how you overcome every disadvantage that birth or circumstance has dealt you.
Reading is how you learn and see, hear and know, things which life otherwise would not bring you.
You can read the words of God, the wisdom of men, the horrors of war, the sweetness of love. You can read things that will make you rage, or weep, or resolve to be better and wiser.
Or you can sit where you are. Staring at a screen or a bottle or a future no brighter than your present.
The choice is yours. The power is yours. Reading is the way.
Go to the library, and take yourself off the shelf.
And never forget: The best ladder is a book.