How am I grateful for books? Let me count the ways

This writer's debt of gratitude to books begins with 'Curious George.'

Who can ever be grateful enough to the patient family members who read those first books out loud?

On most Thanksgivings, I’ve walked past our living room bookshelves on the way to the holiday feast, not giving them much thought as I tuck into the table for turkey and dressing, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.

The books in our lives are easy to take for granted, yet worthy of our gratitude because, like all blessings, they can easily be lost.

Those of us who live in Louisiana were reminded of that last August, when an epic flood swept into the region, the rising water running through thousands of homes and businesses. As the waters subsided, libraries both personal and institutional lay in ruins.

My house was spared, but my sister Judy’s was not. Most of her family’s books, damaged beyond repair, went to the trash pile. Their loss touched me because Judy was the older sibling who taught me to read a half a century ago, sitting on the sofa and helping me parse “Curious George.” To her, in large measure, I owe my lifelong love affair with words, something Judy and I have shared over the years as fellow journalists.

At Judy’s place, the enormity of the damage is so large that she has yet to fully fathom it. Even so, some absences already stand out. Gone are the Dr Seuss books she once read to her daughter Amanda, now grown. Amanda had hoped to share them with her own children not yet born, but that legacy is not to be.

Gone also is Judy’s copy of “A Day in the Life of America,” a coffee table book given as a wedding present decades ago. All of her Anne Rice novels are gone, as well as the multi-volume "Popular Mechanics" home improvement encyclopedia once owned by our grandfather, a testament to his endless industry.

In the Baton Rouge suburb of Denham Springs, the local high school salvaged just 14 books from a library collection started when the school was founded in 1897. At Glen Oaks Park Elementary in Baton Rouge, every single school library book was lost. Trey Veazey, a literacy specialist on campus, went online to ask for help. Thousands of new and used books poured in from donors across the country.

In Louisiana, we’ve been reminded this year that readers around the world are generous souls, and that’s been a cause for gratitude, too.

This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for those everywhere who love books, and for books themselves. And I will give thanks for the sister who introduced me to “Curious George,” and who, like that little monkey of long ago, has shown those around her how to face life’s disasters with ingenuity and pluck.

Danny Heitman, a columnist with The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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