As kids my friends and I were so poor we hardly ever had store bought toys, not even at Christmas. And there was no money to travel away from home, save for the daily trips to school. Books filled both voids in our lives; they were a constant and vital source of entertainment, and they opened up the world to our young, eager minds.
Remarkably, we owned very few books, and consequently developed a sharing system. As boys we were hooked on the works of Louis L’Amour and the exploits of The Hardy Boys. If one of us acquired a book we would pass it on to a friend once we were done reading, and over the course of a few weeks all of us would have consumed the story.
We were fortunate to have a decent library in our parish capital, about six miles from my home. Most days, after classes, and exhausted and happy from hours of soccer and cricket, we would pop in for a read as well as to stock up on the maximum allowable borrowing quota. Again, we were partial to adventure, and would seek out everything from Greek mythology to Oliver Twist, to all the local favorites such as the works of C. Everard Palmer and Claude McKay.
There was a span of about two years when the Ministry of Education launched a nationwide reading program, via the book mobile. This was a van that was stocked with books and traveled to the deep rural areas of each parish, taking books to areas not covered by brick and mortar libraries. I still recall the excitement of the throngs – young and old – as we would line up for long minutes to get a shot at sorting through the treasure on wheels!
Unfortunately the book mobile did not last. Prohibitive cost was given as the reason for the termination of the program, and it left a big hole in our consciousness. Thankfully a library was established not long after, about a mile from my home. That was an easy distance to traverse for the precious books, given that we would routinely trek this distance for drinking water.
In an effort to encourage reading the library hosted a series of competitions, usually general knowledge quizzes. By reading we would have the best chance of answering the questions and winning, and by winning we would get prizes in the form of books. That was more than enough motivation for me, and I usually won more than my fair share of books.
Those formative years, infused with reading, were some of the most valuable of my life. As long as I had a book my day was never boring, and I spent many hours listening to the afternoon rain beating down on our zinc roof while curled up with an irresistible tome. And a lot of what I know of the world – the exploits of Pele, the majesty of the Himalayas, the life and times of Alexander the Great and the history of George Headley – I learned way back then, as a boy, with few toys but with an invaluable access to books.