My very first memory is reading. I was sitting on the floor next to my dad's chair, no doubt wanting attention he wasn't giving. He was reading the newspaper, as he did every evening after getting home from work.
From time to time he would drop a section of the paper on the floor. I was going through the columns, looking for words I might recognize. I was 4. Aunt Lucille had taught me about reading the previous summer. We were an Arkansas family, and as a teacher in elementary school she was our citadel of knowledge.
In that grown-up world of small print, I discovered several words I knew, all of them t-h-e. But suddenly, by sounding it out, I found my first "real" word: l-u-c-k. I showed it to Dad, and he confirmed that I'd figured it out. I almost swooned with triumph. That was one lucky day.
So began the most enduring romance of my life, a six-decade infatuation with the written word. (I didn't meet my wife, Meredith, whom I adore, for another half a century.)
The next step in this romance that I recall was the second grade. The teacher gave me permission, since I didn't do well in her classroom, to spend my days reading. That year I ripped through the entire Child's Wonderbook, a kids' encyclopedia (I hope I'm remembering the title correctly), and all of the Oz books, a double-barreled entry into both fiction and nonfiction. Next came the Bible, and then stories of every kind -- baseball books, tales of Indians, H. Rider Haggard and the other historical novelists, the classic American authors and, later, my greatest reading pleasures, Shakespeare, Whitman, e.e. cummings. They are an unending source of joy.
Today I read as research for my own books, but I also read a couple of novels a week purely for pleasure. I am persuaded that cultures reveal themselves most fully and most beautifully in their stories, in their ancient scriptures. However much truth the Bible tells us about Jehovah, it certainly shows us the hearts and minds of the Jews of those times. The same is true of the Hindus, Persians, Africans, Celts, American Indians, etc.
In our stories we show what we love, what we hate; what enchants us, what makes us mad; what our beliefs are (unconscious as well as conscious); what our thoughts are about being married, raising a family, getting along with our fellow human beings; what it is to be a good man or a good woman.
A thousand years from now, if I were researching 21st century America, I wouldn't look first at our buildings, our technology, our businesses, our governments. Nor would I look first at all the treatises of historians, psychologists and sociologists about us. I would look at the stories we write about our own times, the stories people really like, by writers like John D. MacDonald, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and many more. Those are the real songs of our hearts.
On the Navajo reservation where I live in Utah, many kids grow up barely learning to read. The same is true, if the reports are accurate, of our ghettos. In fact, according to reports, American schools routinely turn out kids who are marginal readers.
If any door must be opened, it is the world of books. I have roamed widely through those worlds and hope to spend all my days there.
I have journeyed down a great river (the one I grew up alongside) with Mark Twain. I strode to the top of Everest with Edmund Hillary. Visited far galaxies with Ursula Le Guin and, differently, Carl Sagan. Sojourned in Arabia with T.H. Lawrence and Sir Richard Burton. Guided by Frank Baum, I even met the Wizard of Oz.
Our schools open this month. If you're a youngster, treat yourself to an adventure -- read until you're entranced.
If you're a grown-up, have some fun and be a model for kids at the same time -- read a book. Read a dozen.
Win Blevins is the author of 16 books. His latest novel, "Beauty for Ashes," will be published by TOR-Forge Books in September.