A Celebration of Literacy's Roots

By , Heather Vogel Frederick is a freelance writer who lives in Amesbury, Mass.

THE OPEN DOOR: WHEN WRITERS FIRST LEARNED TO READ Selected by Steven Gilbar, Boston: David R. Godine, 127 pp., $14.95

CRISP white paper. Ink. Glue. Ah, the sweet smell of books! Like Marcel Proust's madeleines, theirs is a scent that can trigger a host of memories - especially if one happens to be a writer.

Over the years, many writers have committed such memories to paper. In a fitting close to 12 months of events celebrating ``The Year of the Young Reader'' comes a slim volume of excerpts from just such reminiscences.

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``The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read'' is a collaboration between the publisher, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, and editor Steven Gilbar.

A paean to the exhilarating apprenticeship of a childhood spent in the company of books, its contents include an eclectic group of writers (among them Annie Dillard, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, W.B. Yeats, and Stephen King) whose childhoods are bound together by a common thread: a love of the written word.

Organized chronologically, ``The Open Door'' is a celebration of literacy and its roots.

Many of the writers' recollections are gems; some, like those of Winston Churchill and H.G. Wells, are humorous, others, poignant (Upton Sinclair's sordid childhood surroundings forced him to take refuge in the world of literature). Still others are inspiring, like the accounts of black authors Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright, both of whom had to hurdle great obstacles in their quest for literacy.

In an excerpt from his book ``Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth,'' Wright tells of being obliged, at the age of 17, to ask a white employer if he could borrow his library card, as the Memphis library was off-limits to blacks. Gilbar adds, ``Wright then wrote a note to the library over that man's signature to the effect that he was sending the `boy' to pick up books for him: `Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H.L. Mencken?'''

Will Durant recalls coming up 11 cents short of the purchase price of a used copy of ``David Copperfield'' and being lent the money by a beneficent stranger - ``whom I conceived as a millionaire philosopher but who turned out to be a butcher'' - and how that book opened his eyes to the joy of reading. ``What a new universe I had found! I no longer lived in prosaic New Jersey; I wandered around the world with my heroes and my poets .... ''

The book's title was taken from a selection by M.F.K. Fisher, who writes of an encounter with ``The Wizard of Oz'' when she was five years old: ``I lay voluptuously on my stomach on the big bed, blissfully alone, and I felt a thrill which has never left me as I realized that the words coming magically from my lips were mine to say or not, read or not. It was one of the peaks of my whole life. Slowly my eyes rode across the lines of print, and the New World smiled.... The door opened, and without hesitation I walked through.''

``The Open Door'' is a reader's delight, a book to be savored, to browse through time and again. It has an endearingly personal tone, as if the reader had been invited to sit down for a short visit with each of the writers - a tone that is enhanced by the black and white photographs or illustrations of each writer that preface the selections.

The excerpts themselves tantalize rather than satisfy - and readers may find themselves prodded to delve further into these or other writers' autobiographies.

``I love the whole notion of when writers first learned to read,'' says John Cole, director of the Center for the Book, an organizational offshoot of the Library of Congress, which he describes as ``a small outfit that promotes books, reading, and libraries - paid for with private funds.''

Cole finds it fitting that this particular book, published to mark 1989 as ``The Year of the Young Reader,'' ``brings readers and writers and reading all together'' in a way that hasn't been done before.

As Barbara Bush, honorary chairperson for the campaign, notes in her preface to the book, ``Few things in life are as important as being able to read.''

``The Open Door'' is certainly a testament to that fact.

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