A heritage of reading

Some people say life is a series of coincidences. Others say there are no coincidences at all. But any way you look at it, our lives are intricately connected by shared experiences — including the act of reading.

Back in February, Rob Neufeld, the enthusiastic director of Together We Read, invited me to join him and 24 other people for the program’s annual evaluation-and-brainstorming meeting.

TWR’s mission is “to develop in Western North Carolina a love of reading through the shared experience of well-chosen books.” Any group can participate — a family or a club, a library, bookstore or educational institution — and everyone reads that year’s chosen book by a local author. In the past four years, group members have read and discussed Wilma Dykeman’s The French Broad (2002); Fred Chappell’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are (2003), Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (2004), and John Ehle’s The Road (last year).

Around that same time, one of my sisters moved into a house she’d bought in Madison County just off the Marshall Highway. Stashed in its deep, cedar-lined closets were boxes and boxes of books the previous owner had left behind. My sister gave me some she knew I would love, plus a faded portfolio with the raised logo of the Richmond Hill Inn and Conference Center. Inside were fancy cream-and-green brochures giving the history of the inn (including rooms named for Dykeman and Ehle) along with a program from the Marshall Book Club’s 50th anniversary celebration. Wilma Dykeman was the guest speaker for the 1989 event — perhaps not surprising, since two of her books were listed among the club’s favorite selections.

A narrative of the club’s history begins: “1939 … October. War clouds hung over Europe, school had started, harvest was almost over, and soon winter would be coming to the village of Marshall — Madison County’s seat along the French Broad River.”

The account goes on to say that “as late as 1939 Madison County did not have a public library, and it was not until the mid-1940s that a bookmobile came to Marshall, with Peggy Dottener as its director. These books were housed in a small storage room at the public school on Blannahassett Island. Some Marshall residents had access to the library at Mars Hill College, and those who had friends and relatives in Asheville use the Pack Library from time to time.”

On Nov. 6, 1939, five women met “enthusiastically” at Hattie McElroy’s home, and the Marshall Book Club became a reality. They decided there would be no more than 15 members, because “most homes could not accommodate more than 15 persons, and most china cabinets did not hold refreshment service for more than 15.”

Reading this took me back to my childhood in Dillingham, in Big Ivy. I joined my first book club when my sisters and I walked up the lane to my grandmother Zella Dillingham’s house during the warm days of summer vacation and lay beside her on her big bed in the living room of her little frame house (which was never wired for electricity) and read with her. She read The Christian Science Monitor and Grit, plus whatever anybody gave her. She stacked her reading material on the small, oilcloth-lined wooden table beside her bed, along with her kerosene lamp. She and one of our neighbors, Janie Banks — another avid reader who shared her books with me — also borrowed books every month from the county bookmobile, hosted by Katherine Case, whose friendly face I vividly remember.

My next book club came when I attended first grade in the three-room school about a mile below our home. There were three teachers for grades one through eight; my oldest sister and I were in the same class (she was in the second grade). The teacher, Mrs. Sams, lined us up in the front row, and we took turns reading aloud. (I remember her admonishing us not to move our heads up and down as we read.)

I was in the sixth grade at Barnardsville Elementary when I joined my next book club, which consisted of just two people. My best friend, Linda Lou Carson, and I decided to compete with each other to see how many books we could read during that school year. I won with 66 books. But as I recall, Linda Lou and I were neck and neck all year, keeping our penciled lists on lined paper in our notebooks and comparing them frequently. (Our teacher, Mrs. Mary Jo Hensley, doubled as the school’s librarian. I can still smell the white paste we used to help her put cards in new books in the little library!)

Around that time, I was also competing with my sisters in another reading club of sorts. In the summertime, we would race down our lane to the mailbox to see who would be the first to read that day’s Asheville Citizen. Among other things, I wanted to read the baseball standings — I was a Yankees fan! Then I’d read the funnies and the rest of the paper.

My love of reading has continued undiminished down through the years. I have just read TWR’s 2006 selection, Ron Rash’s Saints at the River, which book clubs across Western North Carolina are gearing up to read and discuss — brought together once again by the love of reading and of sharing the rich connections it brings them.

To learn more about Together We Read, go to togetherweread.org, or contact Rob Neufeld at 768-2665.

[Asheville poet Nancy Dillingham is a sixth-generation Dillingham from Big Ivy.]

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