THE BENEFITS OF READING

Ben R. Williams

On Tuesday, I headed up to the Patrick County Library to do a story on the library’s fundraiser for a new bookmobile to serve the more far-flung parts of the county.

While I was interviewing my friend Garry Clifton, the branch manager at the library and a former bookmobile driver, he said something that stuck in my brain.

“Every reader can tell the story of the book that got them excited,” he said. “When they were a child in first, second, third or fourth grade, something ignited that interest in reading. That’s why the bookmobile is at the schools.”

I love books, and I well remember the first book that got me excited about reading.

Before I could even read, I was obsessed with books. I remember insisting that my mom read me “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle over and over again. It was a Bassett Library copy, and I checked it out so often that it probably spent more time at our home than in the library.

Then, of course, there was “The Bang Bang Family,” written and illustrated by famed weird cartoonist Gahan Wilson, whose work I still love dearly. “The Bang Bang Family” told the story of a ghoulish-looking family who were incapable of doing anything quietly. They bang-banged down the stairs and bang-banged the front door open and bang-banged their way to school and work. At the end of the book, after the Bang Bang Family have finally gone to bed, a mouse pokes his head out of hole in the baseboard and mutters, “Thank goodness that’s all over.” It was a killer punchline.

I made my dad read that one to me so often that, fearing for his sanity, he began hiding it around the house in hopes of having just one night where he didn’t have to read the phrase “bang-bang” 237 times (I always found it, though).

But the big one came when I was in first grade. I had only been reading on my own for a year or so, maybe less, and I decided it was time for a challenge.

While I was at the Martinsville Library, I checked out a copy of “Pet Sematary” by Stephen King. It was a hardback with the original artwork, probably a first edition. It may still be on the shelf today.

I expect the cover drew me in, a great piece of hand-painted artwork featuring the face of a hissing, green-eyed cat, and above the cat’s head, a shadowy figure carrying a body into a cemetery. I had probably also seen the commercials for the Stephen King Library that used to run on TV constantly in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (sign up today for a free glow-in-the-dark skeleton keychain, yours to keep, no matter what!).

I loved “Pet Sematary.” I read it at home, and I carried it with me to first grade every day so I could read it whenever I had some downtime. It probably took me two months to finish it – I hadn’t been reading too long, so a 400-page book was a major hill to climb – but the day I finished it, I took it back to the library and checked out another Stephen King book.

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hickson, saw how much I loved Stephen King, and she brought me a bunch of King paperbacks from home. I was thrilled.

I found out years later that another teacher once asked Mrs. Hickson why on earth she would encourage me to read such horrible, frightening things. She told that teacher that when you see a first-grader enthralled with reading, you encourage them, no matter what it is they want to read.

King was my gateway drug into the world of books. His books showed me the power of writing, and while I was still in elementary school, I started writing my own (terrible) horror short stories. Eventually, I got (marginally) better at writing, and I branched out into new authors.

If you trace the thread all the way back, you could argue that if it hadn’t been for that dog-eared copy of “Pet Sematary” in the Martinsville Library, I might have never decided to pursue a degree in English, and I might not have ended up in my chosen career path.

One thing is certain: It’s important to encourage young people to read, and they’ll never fall in love with reading if they don’t have easy access to books.

And so, after this Stephen King-style long-winded tangent, I encourage everyone to consider making a donation to the Patrick County Library Bookmobile Fund at patrickcountybookmobilefund.org.

I also encourage the bookmobile coordinator to add a copy of “Pet Sematary” to the shelves. It still holds up.

Ben Williams writes for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at benjamin.williams@martinsvillebulletin.com

Ben R. Williams reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at benjamin.williams@martinsvillebulletin.com