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"Stock your mind."
A timely lesson on stories and human freedom from Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes"
As you might have guessed, I like to read (a prerequisite for any aspiring writer). I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I’m blessed to have friends and family who enjoy books as much as I do.
Since the dawn of e-book technology, I’ve vacillated between print and electronic books. I’ve owned a series of Kindles and two iPads, but over the past few years have gravitated back towards print. There’s just something about holding a volume in your hands as you read it and being able to quickly scan through its pages that, for my money, makes the tactile reading of a paper book superior to reading on a screen. Still, electronic reading devices have advantages. They’re easy to take on trips, they let you read in dark places, and they provide access to Substacks like this one.
Some books are instructive. They teach us about our values, our beliefs, our past, our present, and sometimes even our future. We learn from them how things work and why we should or should not want them to. They show us where we’ve been and warn us about where we’re going. They introduce us to places, cultures, and ideas we would not otherwise encounter.
Some books transport us. They lift us from our seats and drop us into strange new places. They immerse us into the experiences of other people, real or imagined. They help us understand the characters’ joys, fears, triumphs, and sufferings. By doing so, they expand our capacity for empathy.
And some books are purely entertaining. We can become absorbed in a mystery, excited by action, enveloped in romance, and amused by humor. Like books that instruct and those that expand our horizons, books that entertain serve a worthy purpose.
One paperback I’ve been reading lately that shines in all three of these categories is Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1996 masterpiece, Angela’s Ashes. It’s a memoir that tells the tale of the author’s childhood in Limerick, Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s (and possibly beyond – I haven’t finished reading it yet). It is written from a child’s perspective and in a child’s language and is narrated in the present tense. That choice of verb tense creates a sense of immediacy, making the reader feel like they are witnessing up-close and first-hand everything young Francis McCourt describes -- the hunger, the dirt roads, the family’s sad house, the schools, the pubs, and most of all the people, characters so real they practically jump off the pages. No history book could have done a better job of conveying what it was like to be a young Irish-Catholic boy living in that place at that time.
I found one story from the book particularly timely. A little more than halfway through, we see ten-year-old Francis struck with typhoid fever. When he recovers, after a lengthy hospitalization, his Catholic school decides to hold him back a year because of the classes he missed while he was sick. He is assigned to repeat and complete fifth class, where he unhappily must join his younger brother.
But then a rare good thing happens to the lad. His teacher instructs him to write a composition about what it would have been like if Jesus had been born in Limerick. Francis must then read the composition to the class to show what he had learned during his first stint in fifth class the year before.
In its own honest, child-like, and unintentionally humorous way, Francis’ composition reveals an active, imaginative mind from which he applies what he has learned in catechism class about Jesus’ life in the Holy Land nearly twenty centuries earlier to the present-day life the boy knows in his own Irish town. His teacher is so impressed (and likely amused) by Francis’ composition that he moves Francis up to sixth class, rejoining his former classmates and, presumably without knowing, answering a prayer the boy had made to the saint after which Francis was named.
The move to sixth class opens a brave new world to Francis. There, for the first time, his teacher exposes the students to ambiguity. Instead of being taught that the Irish are always good and the English always bad, as his father had led him and his younger brothers to believe, he learns that the truth is actually more complicated. Most important, he is taught the importance of critical thinking.
Mr. O’Halloran can’t lie. He’s the headmaster. All these years we were told the Irish were always noble and they made brave speeches before the English hanged them. Now Hoppy O’Halloran is saying the Irish did bad things. Next thing he’ll be saying the English did good things. He says, You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.
Now that Francis has reached sixth class, it’s not only his school that seems changed. It’s also his father. Portrayed as a well-meaning and loving but irresponsible parent who can’t hold down a job and who spends what little money the family has in the pubs (he “drinks” his wages, his son explains), Francis’ dad was fond of telling his boys that they had to die for Ireland. Yet now we are introduced to another side of the man.
In the morning we have the world to ourselves and he never tells me I should die for Ireland. He tells me about the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn’t let the Catholics have schools because they wanted to keep the people ignorant, that the Catholic children met in hedge schools in the depths of the country and learned English, Irish, Latin and Greek. The people loved learning. They loved stories and poetry even if none of this was any good for getting a job. Men, women and children would gather in ditches to hear those great masters and everyone wondered at how much a man could carry in his head. The masters risked their lives going from ditch to ditch and hedge to hedge because if the English caught them teaching they might be transported to foreign parts or worse.
McCourt wants us to understand what his teacher and father taught him; namely, that knowledge is power, that the powerful use ignorance to prey upon the weak, that to defeat such predation people must acquire knowledge (even if doing so requires risk and sacrifice), and that a people’s stories contain much of the empowering knowledge they must strive to acquire at all costs. And, the father suggests, learning those stories and poems has intrinsic value beyond the political.
Although the book was published in 1996 and these particular events took place in the 1940s, their lessons couldn’t be more timely. Today America is witnessing a dangerous suppression of stories, both real and fictional, by public officials the likes of which has not occurred in our lifetimes. I’m tempted to launch into a diatribe about the current trends in some red states to ban books from their schools, including such beloved and important classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale. But much has already been written about these invidious measures and the courts will soon be weighing in. (This lawyer believes many if not all of these recent laws will not withstand attack under the First Amendment, but time will tell.)
For now, I mean only to reinforce the lessons learned by young McCourt. Learning from the stories of other people, and especially of people different from ourselves, is indispensable to a free society. There is no more important way to safeguard our cherished belief in freedom and justice for all than to allow all people virtually unfettered access to the written word.
Note: Writing this piece has forced me to reflect on whether I’m a free speech absolutist. I probably don’t take free speech to that extreme, as there certainly is content that, if allowed to be disseminated, could cause grave physical harm to innocent people. Narrow restrictions designed to prevent imminent, serious harm may be justifiable, as courts have recognized in developing First Amendment law. None of the pernicious laws and book bans currently in vogue fall within that category.
On a Related Note: On May 13th, National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell delivered the Commencement Address at his and my undergraduate alma mater, the College of Wooster. Mr. Russell is a high school history teacher who teaches courses in Black Music and the African Diaspora, African-American History, and Race, Gender and Oppression. In his address, he spoke about the importance of diverse stories in teaching our children to engage in civil discourse. His lessons: 1) We must humanize individuals’ stories; 2) We must be truth tellers; and 3) We must confront the uncomfortable. His address was a powerful antidote to the repressive laws being passed in numerous states to ban books and conversations in our schools that make some parents and politicians uncomfortable because they discuss race, gender, and LGBTQ+ experiences. I highly recommend Mr. Russell’s powerful address, which you can find here: 2023 College of Wooster Commencement Address.
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