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A real book opened up the world, for me and Mama

POSTED: March 18, 2012 12:30 a.m.

My mother was born three years before the Great Depression to a family who lived in a small sharecropper house that lacked the benefits of electricity, running water and indoor plumbing.

She never went to college, but throughout her life, she loved learning. She believed if you could see it, you would appreciate it more.

When Sen. Richard Russell died, she took us to the Capitol for the arrival of President Richard Nixon, who came to pay his respects. He was the first president I saw in person. I remember the exact place we stood.

When I was a child, my dad was very sick and my mother sold encyclopedias to help us make ends meet.

If Mama couldn't take us somewhere in person, she took us there in the pages of the World Book Encyclopedia. It had color pictures of great things all over the world.

I thought about her this week when I heard Encyclopedia Britannica would no longer publish books. Instead, the 244-year-old publication will only be available in an electronic edition.

I went online and found that World Book is still a book (actually a set of books). I don't know if I was relieved for the sake of my Mama or for me.

I have an electronic tablet and I occasionally use it to read newspaper stories, particularly when I'm traveling. But I have not purchased a single electronic book. They will have to pull me kicking and screaming into that genre.

Before I ever darkened the door of a public school, Mama took me to the library. I would pick out a book or two and we would take them home and she would read them to me.

I remember books like "Curious George," "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel" and "The Little Engine That Could." Their stories are etched in my mind.

We had a mail order subscription to the Dr. Seuss books. My favorite was "Hop on Pop." In my ad-libbed version, Mr. Brown, who went out of town, came back with Mr. Blackwood. I added it in with a crayon.

I went with my Mama on a few of her sales calls. I was told to be quiet and obeyed. Mama was the most passionate salesperson I ever saw. When she told the customer they needed this for their children, it was as if they would never amount to a hill of beans without these magical books.

During the space program, World Book published a glossy color book on the astronauts.

A few years later, I had the occasion to spend two days going across Georgia with John Glenn during his failed bid for the presidency in 1984. Mama was rather proud of her boy rubbing elbows with the famed astronaut and U.S. senator.

I knew his story because of books.

The printed word has a special place with me. I learned how to read a book, not an electronic screen. I learned about everybody from Jesus to George Washington in a book.

There's a part of me that wants to go out and order a set of encyclopedia books before they go away.

They remind me of their great ability to educate, but more than that, they remind me of a great encyclopedia saleswoman.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.



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