The first essay I assign in my composition classes is to write a personal literary narrative. The purpose of which is for my students to explore and to share their unique history/relationship with the written word. In other words, I want them to share whatever it was that sparked or, sadly too often, squelched their interest in reading and/or writing. Although I’ve assigned this essay several times, I, ironically, had never deeply considered from where my love for reading and writing emanates. Only recently, however, have I climbed into the “Wayback Machine” to pinpoint its genesis.
For many, such a love begins in early childhood listening to books being read at bedtime or while sitting on the laps of their parents, or it was the mere presence of plentiful books in the household that ignited their interest. However, none of these scenarios explain my relationship with the written word. With eight children, my folks had little time beyond that required to complete the necessities of maintaining a household, much less for storytime. And even though my mom subscribed to Highlights, the children’s magazine, more than it was ever read, that magazine was re-purposed to be the bases for our games of pickle in the front room, just as wax apples and oranges became wiffle balls, metal hangers became basketball hoops, and couches became end zones. My poor mother.
In my recent reflections, I’ve decided it was at Roth Printing, my extended family’s business that spanned three generations, where my love of the written word began by it literally soaking into my senses. It was seeing pallets stacked with paper that reeked of possibility with their blankness waiting to be filled in. It was the crystal cave that was the dark room, where the appropriate mixture of agitated chemicals converted nothing into something. It was the ink of rubber stamp pads being absorbed into my fingertips, the sound of the whistled melodies of my Uncle Ronnie over the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of the presses, the sight of my aunts and uncles at their various work stations, and most impressively, the smell of the ink — the singular smell of my childhood — wafting into my nostrils that instigated my lifelong obsession with the process of ink becoming letters that become words that become sentences that become paragraphs that become chapters that become entire books.
It’s fair to say that Johan Gutenberg’s invention of the modern printing press in the fifteenth century was the single most world-changing invention of the second millenium, not rivaled in significance until the introduction and proliferation of the Internet. I wouldn’t suggest that, as a child, I understood the role that the ancestors of those printing presses in the Roth Printing building on the corner of Scott and Perry Streets (always referred to as “The Shop”) played in changing the world by advancing the democratization of knowledge, but I think I did intuit the power inherent in those inked figures on paper and I wanted access to that power.
I don’t believe in magic, at least not in the kind featured on television and stage. I admit that there are certainly impressive, even awe-inspiring, sleight-of-hand feats performed, illusions created, and tricks played by skilled magicians, but that is exactly what they are, meaning tricks. To my mind, the greatest magic that has ever been done is the act of converting synapses of thought into the sounds represented by letters into typically black symbols on a white sheet of paper that recreate those synapses of thought or imagination in the mind of a reader who will most likely never meet the author in whose mind those synapses of thought originally fired.
That, my friends, is truly magic.
So you can keep your Merlin, your Gandalf, your Harry Potter. You will never conince me that the greatest white magic wielding wizards the world’s ever seen weren’t my grandfather, aunts and uncles, and father, or that the most powerful magic wand in the world is not a pen.
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