The essentials of reading haven’t changed much in the past 90 years.
Sure, a time travel back to Terre Haute circa 1928 would involve some culture shock for 21st-century Hauteans. Interurban rail cars rumbled through the streets. Newsboys hawked five different Terre Haute newspapers downtown. Theaters employed house orchestras. The smell of coal and fuel oil heating homes and business permeated the air, mixed with smoke from dozens of factories and other industrial aromas. Men and boys often wore suspenders. Women and girls donned checkered dresses. It seems like a strange scene now.
Still, when those folks curled up with a book, that mental adventure still boiled down to a good story and a curious mind.
Tribune-Star employees initiated a Christmas Basket Fund in 1928, rounding up donations to feed needy families in the city. The newspaper’s staff — from those running the presses to people setting hot type, selling ads, handling bills, snapping photographs, covering ball games and reporting on City Council meetings — delivered those baskets on Christmas Eve that year.
It’s happened much the same way every year since, including 2018, making the Tribune-Star Christmas Baskets one of the city’s longest-running charitable events. A new twist was subtly added in recent years. Along with baskets of food to be delivered on Monday, recipients also will find food for the mind — books.
Hundreds of gently used books have been donated for this year’s Christmas Basket drive. A hefty portion came through the efforts of students at Honey Creek Middle School. Ten days ago, seventh-graders began bringing in a gamut of books, ranging from those suited for teens down to read-me-a-story toddlers. Day by day, the stacks grew in the classroom of my wife, Teri, who teaches English at Honey Creek. When their collection concluded on Thursday, the students had contributed 1,028 books.
Seventh-grader Owen Chapman brought in 112. Many are those he read, or had read to him. On Thursday morning, the students — energized by being just one day away from Christmas break — gathered around the tall stacks of books. Chapman explained that he reads dozens a year, such as the “Harry Potter” series. His favorite, though, is “The Giver,” a 1993 science fiction novel by Lois Lowry that became a movie in 2014, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.
As a reader, Chapman said sometimes he’ll “start off thinking, this [book] isn’t going to be good,” but sticks with it. Usually, he added, the plot gets more interesting as he turns more pages.
Plenty of compelling stories are included among those donated books. There are classics, such as Wilson Rawls’ 1961 novel, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” about a boy who trains hunting dogs; adventure tales for elementary age kids, like “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeier; and encouraging books, such as Newberry Award-winner Jerry Spinelli’s “Loser: Why Fit In When You Can Stand Out?” Millions of readers love series, and there are several amid the contributed books, including R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” fictional horror tales and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children.”
Ninety years ago, Terre Haute kids and adults entertained themselves by reading, too. Many found them at the Emeline Fairbanks Public Library on North Seventh Street or one of its 18 satellite branches scattered across town. Shelves in that stately stone building — now Indiana State University’s Fairbanks Hall — contained 96,063 volumes, according to the “1928 Industrial Survey of Terre Haute, Indiana.”
Then, as now, serial books were popular with children and teenagers. Those included “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Rover Boys,” “Girls of Central High” and “The Hardy Boys,” as Tom Roznowski explained in his own 2009 book, the fascinating “An American Hometown,” a snapshot of Terre Haute in 1927. Adults read authors like D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Wolfe, Booth Tarkington, and Terre Haute’s own Theodore Dreiser, explained Roznowski.
It’s tricky to compare chances for leisure then and now. The Hauteans of 1928 weren’t distracted by smartphones, or addicted to them, so focusing on a book appears simpler. Entertainment involved more physical effort. People typically walked or rode the interurban to the library, theater, dance hall, YMCA, YWCA, pool, baseball stadium or golf course. Some played pianos in their own home. Or read a book.
Ideally, that’s what kids, parents, adults and senior citizens will do after receiving the Christmas Basket books. Pleasure reading improves kids’ chances of success in school. Likewise, pleasure reading can improve the vocabularies of adolescents and middle-age folks, according to a 2014 report by the World Economic Forum. Besides, it’s also just a fun diversion from life’s difficulties.
The key is to open that book sitting on a nightstand, closet shelf or kitchen table. Seventh-grader Owen Chapman’s advice is to “read them. And enjoy them, too.”
Wise words for all of us.