November 24, 1999
By Argentina Mendieta
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently we celebrated National Library Month. Nicaraguan, Argentina Mendieta, reflects on what books and the library has meant to her.)
"You have to do it," he said, "I don't want you having stupid conversations. Guys may be interested in girls for superficial reasons at first, but after a girl has trapped a guy, there has to be more than her physical appearance to keep him interested, like an interesting conversation, a good mind, for instance - you have to read more," my father said to me after we had finished dinner and mother was clearing the table.
"But dad," I countered, "I find reading very boring."
"Then you are going to be the person with the most boring conversation I have ever met and you are going to get a reputation among other people as the girls who has nothing interesting to say," my father said as he suddenly go up with an air that said, `I don't want to discuss the subject any further and you will do as I say.'
I became despondent. I have always admired my dad, I still do, but at age 9 you want to do things that please him, things that will make him proud of you. So I walked over to the family library and looked up at the rows and rows of books. Encyclopedias of very kind. Encyclopedias of the human body, encyclopedias about art, others about mythology, others only about children's stories, encyclopedias for all sorts and tastes. Where to begin?
Being only nine and not very tall, I went over to the row that was at my reach and picked out a book from the collection of children's classics. I had good feelings about it right away, simply because the binding on the book was bright red and when I opened it to look inside, it had lots of big pictures, as well as printed words. But the way I figured it was that with so many pictures, it might not have that many words to read. So I went to my room, laid face down on my bed and opened the first book I was about to read - "To Sawyer" by Mark Twain.
To my delight I found that the pictures had captions underneath, about three lines long. "This is great!" I thought. "I bet these captions underneath the illustrations are like a summary about what the whole chapter is about. So all I have to do is just read the captions and I'll know what the whole chapter is about."
Feeling very proud of myself for being so smart. I read only the captions and was done with the whole book in half an hour.
When I turned 11 years old, my father got a job with an overseas company to create underground sewage systems for countries of the third world that were still using large canals in back of the houses. So off to Surabaya, Indonesia the whole family went.
At age eleven I was still fighting reading. In my school, reading books for fun wasn't part of the curriculum.
When we arrived in Surabaya in the Indonesian island Sumatra, my father had a school chosen for us. It was an American School where only foreign children could attend. The official language of the school was English, even though there were children from all over the world. The school had special tutors who taught the children from countries that didn't speak English, like me. At age eleven I did not speak a word of English.
The principal of the school assigned a tutor to my sisters and to me. We would study English with Mrs. Dyer for four hours everyday. In about four months we knew enough to communicate with the other students and read, so Mrs. Dyer felt that we were ready for a trip to the school library. Oh no! I thought, `here we go again!'
I thought I had escaped the persecution of people who didn't want to read. My dad was so busy with his new job, that he didn't talk to me about reading anymore. But here in this American school, I didn't know that reading was part of the curriculum, that part of your grade had to do with the books you had to read. So off to the school library we filed and Mrs. Dyer showed us around.
"Look at what we have here, open the books and read some to see if it is a book you'd want to read," she said. "You'll be writing a report on it and submitting it to me."
And off she went, leaving us alone to pick a book. The book I ended up selecting and reading turned out to be a little bit boring. But I read it and wrote a report on it anyway.
Some how I hadn't found my niche with reading, but I was still doing it, I had to. Till one wonderful, fortunate day. I walked into the library because I had to pick a book to read. I was a teenager already and I selected a book with a girl and a boy in their late teens on the cover. I took it home and started to read. Two days later when I finished it, I was in love! In love with reading.
Since that moment on I read with a vengeance, I read all the time, every spare moment I had, I'd read. And that joy hasn't left me yet.
I am much, much older now, but throughout all of my adult life, reading has been with me to help me cope with hard, difficult times. The civil war that broke out in my country in the late seventies; we had returned to Nicaragua by then. I would be lying on my bed, reading Perry Mason novels in English for by then I was an avid fan, the Sandinista guerrillas would be fighting against the Somocista National Guard, the bombs would be going off, I could hear the machine guns going, the windows in my room would shake when a bomb would explode too close to my house and I would be enjoying a wonderful adventure of the greatest lawyer in the world, Perry Mason.
So whenever I'd get frightened by all the sounds of war, I'd seek refuge in reading. Reading made me forget the danger we were in.
So, as years passed and life went on, I was to find that books not only provided pleasure, but also contained answers. When I came out of my teens, I developed a different taste in books. I was to appreciate non-fiction, especially books written by people who had survived wars, concentrations camps or illness; or people who through faith had overcome the greatest challenges of their lives. I particularly enjoyed those ones because I could apply it to my life. These people became the heroes to emulate, particularly if I was going through something difficult in my life. " If they could make it, with God's help, I can make it too." I'd think.
Parents always leave their children a legacy. Of all the things I am grateful for that my parents taught me are the ones that helped me deal and cope with the harshest, most difficult times, in my life: my faith, appreciation for music and my love for books I have experienced their tremendous power, the healing power of pleasure.