By Daniel Ford
My older brother Tom is the smartest person I know.
(Okay, his wife is probably even smarter, but I’ve known Tom the longest, so he wins).
I loved the fact that he was smart when I was growing up. It made me want to be smart. It made me want to read a book at the breakfast table like he did every morning. His example made me want to do my homework right when I got home and strive to do the best I could do in school.
I remember walking into his room as a kid—always when he was out of the house because I was too afraid to ask him to hang out—and marvel at all the cool stuff he had. His Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs baseball figurines, NFL gridiron comforter, his original Nintendo. It was a nerd nirvana!
More importantly, Tom always had a ton of books arranged beautifully on his bookshelf. I didn’t steal them back then because I was still reading illustrated versions of Robin Hood and Treasure Island, The Boxcar Children, and any "Star Wars" novel I could get my hands on. I loved knowing his weightier books were there and he had either read them or was planning on reading them. I would go back to my own room and rearrange my less impressive array of titles on my bookshelf so that each shelf started with the tallest book and ended with the shortest, just like my older brother did.
I read everything back then, but I hadn’t had the moment. You know the moment I’m talking about. It's the moment when someone puts a book in your hands and it hits your mind like a thunderbolt and completely changes the direction of your life.
Tom put several books in my hands one Christmas and I’ve haven’t been the same since. He wordlessly handed me a superbly wrapped present. The box was heavy. Since I was only reading thin paperbacks at that point, I didn’t know that meant it could only contain one thing. Books. Heavy, beautiful books.
Inside the box were three books that transformed me from a reader to a reader: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp.
I devoured the first two in short order. My young mind was blown that those two masterpieces came out of someone’s pen. People actually wrote like this? You mean there was more to literature than just pulpy fiction and sci-fi adventures?
Even if I had been a stronger reader at that point, nothing would have prepared me for the opening line to Irving’s classic novel:
“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”
Heavy stuff for a kid who was just trying to survive middle school!
When Tom went to college, I spent a lot of time raiding his bookshelf (and his music collection). He had already made the jump to American history tomes that were way over my head at the time, but which I attempted to plow through all the same. I’m pretty sure I still have his copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that I stole back in high school (and finally finished as a college sophomore). He moved out after graduating and took all his books with him, but the bookshelf stayed behind. I relentlessly set out to fill it after immediately moving into his old room.
I had some help thanks to my high school English teacher Pamela Hayward, who consistently handed me books like Crazy in Alabama, Snow Falling on Cedars, and As I Lay Dying, in addition to the required reading for AP English. But the constant was my older brother. Every Christmas, there would be more books. Or gift cards with recommendations attached. Or a loan from his precious collection.
Now, our bookcases are essentially lending libraries between the two of us. He has books on his shelf that I’ve loaned him without having read them, and vice versa. He likes to kid and say that a book has to be on his shelf for 10 years before he reads it (except for Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, which he will never read). If I can’t find a book in my collection, odds are he has it. Some of the best moments of our bonding weekends are spent talking about all the books we have yet to read in front of one of his bookcases (I usually end up taking one or two home with me every time).
His early example also inspires me to buy books for his three kids—as well as all my other nieces and nephews—for birthdays and Christmas. Toys are fleeting and end up as yard sale fodder. Books are a gateway to creativity, curiosity, and fun! I’ll be getting them books even when they think I’m the lame uncle who gives books (including my own someday…don’t judge me) as gifts, because that’s what I learned from my older brother. It has the added bonus of allowing me to rediscover titles from my youth and keep current with today’s children’s literature.
Tom is now a principal at an elementary school in Connecticut, where he’s inspiring a new generation of young minds.
I follow his Twitter account and couldn’t be prouder when I see something like:
Dr. Veronesi read to both kindergarten classes this morning for Read Across America Day! @KathyVeronesi#rsd13ctpic.twitter.com/ehKB3lFLSI
— Thomas D. Ford (@TFord_LymanCT) February 28, 2014
I sleep well knowing the next generation of readers is in good hands.
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