I straightened a cluttered bookcase at my mother's house the other day. It was like visiting with old friends. .....One by one I pulled out worn books I remembered from childhood -- classics that plumped my life to a fullness that otherwise would have been impossible. We might have been a working-class family -- no Connecticut summer home or butler-laid fires in the parlor -- but we had the tickets to ride first class. The books took us places we really had no business being.

In fact, Anne from Green Gables was one of my bosom friends, making Canada's exotic Prince Edward Island and the Gulf of St. Lawrence seem only a few blocks away from our landlocked Alabama subdivision home.

When, as an adult, I got to visit PEI, it was surprising to realize that nothing surprised me about the place. I already was intimate with the look and feel of the beautiful island from dog-eared pages of L.M. Montgomery's descriptions. Every time I opened the book, I could taste the salty, bracing air. I could hear the drone of tractors tilling the land and the music of flapping sails at the dock. Finally there, I half expected to see Marilla and Matthew sitting on the porch of their Avonlea home; I would have called out to them using the first names of old friends.

Any sense and sensibilities I might have now sprang from this sturdy pine bookshelf, which long ago Mother paid a carpenter to build to help hold our burgeoning home library. There wasn't much discretionary money. But there was always money for books.

If I am too liberal, as some have charged, it's because I believed literally the lessons that the series called " Bedtime Stories" taught about helping those less fortunate than ourselves. If I am a feminist, it's because Pippi Longstocking wasn't scared to tackle anything, or maybe because Velvet Brown, of " National Velvet," didn't listen when they said that it was impossible for a girl to ride in the Grand National.

If I believe in racial equality, it's because of Huck and Jim and the timeless lessons from their misadventures on the Mississippi. If I don't always believe the majority is right, it's because I once read about the strutting emperor and his nonexistent clothes.

If I'm slow to embrace all technology, maybe it's because Louisa May Alcott convinced me that it's more than OK to be an old-fashioned girl. And if the fables of Aesop taught me nothing else, I know better than to kill a goose while it's laying golden eggs.

Don't get me wrong. I've read plenty of things that wouldn't have been considered classics, or come even close. I read the backs of cereal boxes and "Archie" and "Jughead" comic books. I loved Dick Tracy" in the Sunday funny papers, which, I believe, eventually led me to my literary hero, Raymond Chandler, and his gumshoe Philip Marlowe. At a friend's house, I sneaked peeks at the adult-eyes-only goings-on at Peyton Place, and more than once, I'm ashamed to say, read my sister's private diary. Bottom line: I read anything and everything.

I cannot imagine a life without reading, or a world without books. A friend recently presented me with a poster emblazoned with a Carl Elliott quote: "Man builds no structure that outlives a book."

I believe that, though I also fear the reading habit is today endangered because of television and computers and faster-paced temptations. Most children now have no patience for sitting in a well-lit nook and slowly turning pages. They need graphics and moving parts, big screens and lively audio. Adults, too, are so connected that they aren't interested in anything without a plug.

Those sensory embellishments are fine, I guess, but they exercise different parts of the brain. There is no substitute for the visceral pleasure of pulling a book from an old pine shelf, removing its cover to examine the spine, relishing the first sentence and soon enough getting lost in the words.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives in the Iuka vicinity. Her mailing address is Iuka, MS 38852.

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