|World Without End by Ken Follett|
In fifth grade, my English teacher was a Southerner named Mrs. Suggs. She brought with her a certain kind of refined gentility that was something of a curiosity in the small private school I attended in Montclair, New Jersey. I attribute Mrs. Suggs with fostering the writer that was resident within me. One of her requirements was that we learn the rules before we consider breaking them. We wrote daily assignments that were marked with red pencils and graded meticulously, but fairly.
The first month of that year was dedicated to beginning to learn how to write a "acceptable" book report. Over four decades later, I remember the lessons well. Mrs. Suggs had us read four books and write four book reports during that September. It was the beginning of an indoctrination that would last for the remainder of the year. I bemoaned my fate that I had such a taskmaster. To my mother, I insisted that Mrs. Suggs was, singlehandedly, going to ruin books for me forever. Mrs. Suggs's talent laid in her ability to deconstruct novels; I was, at once, awed and disappointed to see the Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain. It was that year that I discovered the extent to which books are scripted. What had once been all magic became less mysterious. I learned to ask the who, why, what, when, how of plots -- then to regurgitate my assessments as they applied to the book I read that week. One of the savings graces of the remarkably high expectations that Mrs. Suggs held for our class of sixteen fifth graders was that, for the most part, we could choose our own readings. For a bibliophile such as myself, that was almost reward enough. However, I have the format of the book reports engraved in my memory banks, as deeply etched as the poem I recited in a grade school poetry reading contest.
by Robert Louis Stevenson
How do you like to go up in a swing,Up in the air so blue?Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thingEver a child can do!Up in the air and over the wall,Till I can see so wide,River and trees and cattle and allOver the countryside--Till I look down on the garden green,Down on the roof so brown--Up in the air I go flying again,Up in the air and down!
A couple of years ago, I read his Ken Follett’s novel, Pillars of the Earth. I was enthralled by his novel about the architecture of early middle-age cathedrals and expected more of the page-turning tale in his second book in a series, World Without End. I believed that he would deliver more of the same. I was disappointed. The first one hundred pages did not really claim my undivided attention. I read another book, but circled back to it. I recited, “I am not a quitter.” I called on Mrs. Sugg’s book report format to help me slog through the next four hundred pages. I labeled topics as if I were preparing to write a book report; I already had the title and the author. I looked for the setting, the main characters, the conflict and the resolution. I simply did not have enough information to write a book report because, even at page 500, I wasn’t convinced I knew what the larger conflict was. I certainly couldn’t guess the resolution.
After several bathtub swimming lessons and another 150 pages, I was engaged. For the final four hundred pages, I was solidly hooked. With the satisfaction of having finished the book, I tried to close it. Regrettably, it was so water-logged and swollen that it did not close. Good thing I took note of the author and title early on, the cover and title page were missing.
Mrs. Sugg’s methods of reading, analyzing, and enjoying books have stayed with me for all these years. If she were still alive, I would take out my best notepaper and write her a note of thanks. Her determination to open the minds of sixteen elementary school students continues to open the mind of at least one middle-aged student of life.