I have received a request from the “Reader’s Digest” for “the best advice I ever had.”
There is another method of changing the shape of things to come than just raw advice for both kids and grownups. And that is the field of tactful suggestion.
At 15 years of age I left school to practice the profession of Office Boy in a business firm in Salem, Oregon. One day there came into the office a Miss Gray. She was a tall lady, in her thirties, with graying hair, agreeable manners, kindly eyes and a most engaging smile. I was alone in the reception office. She announced that she was a school teacher and asked me about my schooling. I told here I had to work, but I hoped to go to a night school that was soon to open in the town. Later I found that Miss Gray’s extracurricular occupation was in advising-or just being interested in-the young working boys in the town.
She asked if I were interested in reading books. She must have thought some wider scope in book reading was desirable from my replies to her questions as to what I had read. As a matter of fact, under my austere Quaker upbringing, my book reading had been limited to the Bible, the encyclopedia, and a few novels which dealt with the sad results of Demon Rum and the final regeneration of the hero.
Presently, as Office Boy, my reading had been confined to the morning paper when my superior finished with it. I also mentioned that outside my office hours I had duties with sand-lot baseball and fishing. Notwithstanding all this, Miss Gray asked me if I would go with her to the small lending library in the town. At the library she said she wished to borrow a copy of Ivanhoe, and she gave it to me saying I would find it interesting to read. I took the book and read it at the office between chores and in the evenings. It opened a new world filled with the alarms and excursions of battles, the pomp of tournaments, the tragedy of Rebecca’s unrequited love, the heroism of the Black Knight and Locksley, and the destiny of Ivanhoe. Suddenly I began to see books as living things and was ready for more of them.
A few days later Miss Gray dropped in again and suggested David Copperfield. I can still remember the harshness of Hardstone, the unceasing optimism of Micawber and the wickedness of Uriah Heep. I have met them alive many times in after years.
And so, through books, my horizons widened, sometimes with Miss Gray’s help and sometimes at my own selection.
Between my duties as Office Boy and in evenings, Sundays and holidays I devoured samples of Thackeray and Irving, and biographies of Washington, Lincoln and Grant.
At the night school the principal introduced me to textbooks on mathematics, elementary science and Latin. But, looking back, I realize that it was books inspired by Miss Gray which had also great importance. While textbooks are necessary to learning, it was those other books which stimulated imagination, the better understanding of life and made the whole world a home. They broadened my scope of life from country to country and made me feel a part of the mighty stream of humanity.
At 17 I went to Stanford University to study engineering. My time was occupied with the required reading and the extracurricular duties of managing the baseball and football teams and earning my way. But occasionally Miss Gray wrote to me and often suggested certain books to read.
Miss Gray’s influence widened when I began the practice of my profession as an engineer, and it extended over the eighteen years which followed. In that work I had long days of travel, and many hours of waiting for things to happen on ships, railways, and canal boats all over the world-from the United States to China, to Burma, to Mexico, to Australia, to Africa, to Canada and to Russia. On one journey, thanks to Miss Gray’s innoculation, I armed myself with paper-bound volumes of DeFoe, Zola and Balzac; on another, such less exciting books as those of Herbert Spencer, James Mills, and Walter Bagehot. Another time I took along Carlisle’s French Revolution, Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and some popular histories of Greece and Egypt. I also read some books on Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, and more American history.
With the coming of the First World War and with official duties devouring me thereafter for many years, my book reading slackened due to a multitude of official documents and government reports.
Nonetheless, Miss Gray’s influence penetrated even as far as the White House. When I arrived at that residence in 1929 I found it was mostly bare of books except for the published papers of former Presidents-incomplete at that. One day I mentioned this famine of representative American literature in the White House to John Howell, an old friend and a leading bookseller. Under his leadership and with the cooperation of the American Booksellers Association, they selected some 500 leading books of American literature. Most of these I had read long ago, but they were enjoyed by other inhabitants of that place.
To me they were always a reminder of Miss Gray, and the words of John Milton-“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
I repeat the title of this article-Thank You, Miss Gray-thank you guiding me to the rich world of wonder, beauty, wisdom, and imagination that can be found in books.