Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Dr. Ben Carson's Mother Encouraged Him to Read

"Being poor, there wasn't much opportunity to go anywhere.  But between the covers of a book he could go anywhere, be anybody and do anything." (Biography.com)

How did the son of a third grade dropout become one of the most gifted neurosurgeons in the United States?  He had a mother who encouraged him to read.

Ben's mother, Sonya, married Robert Carson at the tender age of 13.  The couple had two sons, Curtis and Ben, followed by a separation after Mrs. Carson found out that her husband was already married to another woman.  

As a single mother, Mrs. Carson balanced two or three jobs at a time as a domestic servant while trying to raise two young boys in inner-city Detroit.  Determined to make ends meet, she would buy her sons' clothes at the Good Will, patching them when necessary.  The family would pick corn at a local farm in exchange for a portion of the yield.  

Although Mrs. Carson was a third grade drop out, she always encouraged her sons to do well in school.  However, both struggled in the early years, especially Ben who found himself at the bottom of the class.  When other kids ridiculed him, he would lash out in anger.  His temper seemed to get the better of him.

Mrs. Carson insisted that the boys get an education at home as well as at school.  She restricted their hours in front of the television.  Each week, she assigned them two books to read followed by a book report.  At first, Ben resisted, wanting to be with his friends.  However, in time, he started to appreciate literature.  "Being poor, there wasn't much opportunity to go anywhere.  But between the covers of a book he could go anywhere, be anybody and do anything." (http://www.biography.com/people/ben-carson-475422)

Books provided Ben with a means of escape.  They also gave Ben the chance to dream.  He started to see himself as the central character in each book he read.  Rather than sitting in a classroom in inner city Detroit, he could be Tom Sawyer meandering down the Mississippi or the lion from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  By reading, Ben developped a hunger for knowledge.

Because the Carson's had little money, if one of the boys fell ill, they had to rely on medical assistance.  At the hospital, Ben would listen to doctors being paged over the intercom.  Rather than "Dr. Brown", he would imagine he heard "Dr. Carson".  This imagery was the beginning of his medical career.  

But Ben, the child of a broken home, still battered the anger inside of him, which was bubbling to the surface.  He would fight over trivial things with his friends, classmates and mother.  One day, arguing about a radio station, Ben pulled a knife on his friend and stabbed him.  Fortunately, the knife blade snapped on his friend's belt buckle.

But Ben, unaware, raced home and locked himself in the bathroom with a Bible.  There, he pondered the verse from Proverbs 16:32 which says:  "Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self control than one who takes a city."  He memorized that verse which came in handy every time he felt the anger bubbling over again.

With his interest in his own success, Ben's teachers started showing an interest as well.  At Southwestern High, he had several mentors, especially in the science department.  Thanks to his mother's insistence that he read and study at home, he had developped good work habits and excelled in high school.  

Despite the downturn in the auto industry, Ben managed to find summer jobs in Detroit to save money for college.  His years of reading and working on his homework paid off as he received a scholarship to Yale University where he completed a psychology degree.

Ben went on to medical school and graduated as a neurosurgeon in 1977.  He received a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital where he became the head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the tender age of 33.  Ben became famous for separating conjoined twins, including a pair from Germany and a pair from Iran. Time magazine named him one of the 20 Foremost Physicians in the United States in 2001. 

An avid reader makes an avid writer and such was the case with Ben who authored several books, four of which are bestsellers.  Gifted Hands talks about his work as a surgeon.

Ben retired from medicine in 2013 and announced he was entering politics in 2015.  

Monday, 5 October 2015

Carnegie's Lifelong Pursuit of Knowledge

"Carnegie and Franklin both credited their success to self-education (both spent their spare moments reading any books they could get their hands on)."

Rags to riches millionaire Andrew Carnegie dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge.  While he only had a couple of years of formal education, he was constantly educating himself and claimed that this pursuit was the key to his success.

In his Scotland hometown, Carnegie used to visit the library where he would listen to the poetry of Robert Burns.  Immigrating to America, Carnegie wrote a letter to the editor protesting the fact that he couldn't borrow books from the library, a letter which gained him entry to the library.  As a telegraph deliverer he paid visits to the theatre where he lingered to watch productions of Shakespeare.  With his Pittsburgh Library card he borrowed essays written by Charles Lamb and Thomas Macaulay.  

As a teenager, he joined the debating club and pondered questions like "Should the judiciary be elected by the people?"  Carnegie explained:  "Much of my reading...had a bearing on forthcoming debates and that gave clearness and fixity to ideas." (www.artofmanliness.com/2012/03/28/andrew-carnegie-financial-lessons/)

As a businessman, first with the railroad, then in iron and steel, Carnegie poured over Pittsburgh papers as well as the New York Daily Times.  The entrepreneur started writing books sharing his business strategies like The Gospel of Wealth and The Empire of Business.  Like Benjamin Franklin, Carnegie knew that improving himself included educating himself.  "Carnegie and Franklin both credited their success to self-education (both spent their spare moments reading any books they could get their hands on)." (https://richstudents.wordpress.com/tag/carnegie/)

Carnegie amassed a fortune only surpassed by John Rockefeller.  He believed in the mantra:  "The man who dies rich dies in disgrace." (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/peopleevents/pande01.html).  Carnegie started building libraries which he called "instruments of change" and "temples of learning".  One of the first libraries, a beaux arts building in Washington D.C., the inscription read "Dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge."  In total, Carnegie gave $60 million for 2500 libraries in North America and the United Kingdom, all in the name of educating both rich and poor.

For more information, read Andrew Carnegie's Letter to the Editor at  

Patrons in the reading room of the Carnegie Library of Homestead in Munhall, Pa., circa 1900. The Carnegie Steel Co.fought back against striking steel workers in Homestead in 1892. Click here to see a larger view of this image.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Does Reading Make You Happier?

"I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks." (Ceridwen Dovey)

Ceridwen Dovey felt that she lacked spiritual resources to deal with death and was referred to a bibliotherapist.  The bibliotherapist prescribed the books The Guide by R. K. Narayna, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramigo and The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, among others.  A writer was concerned about her fear of rejection and was prescribed Archy and Mehitabel. A woman who was struggling to balance motherhood and her painting was prescribed Notes from an Exhibition.  Today, there is a book for just about every malady.

However, bibliotherapists are not prescribing the self help types of books but rather literary fiction.  "I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe."  Bibliotherapy boils down to the fact that books provide us with a means of escape. (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier)

Another reason that bibliotherapy works, according to Dovey is that:  "We were dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience."  Sigmund Freud used literature during psychoanalysis.  After the First World War, bibliotherapists prescribed Jane Austen novels for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.  The book The Novel Cure:  An A-Z of Literacy Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin recommends fiction for a plethora of disorders (http://thenovelcure.com/about).  The authors are currently working on a children's version, A Spoonful of Stories, due out in 2016.

Given that we have more self help books than ever on the bookstore shelves, why aren't we happier?
According to Dovey, it's not reading self help books per se that helps us deal with our problems.  It's reading fiction.  Dovey explains the science:  a 2011 study mentioned mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons "fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else."  Therefore, if we observe a character acting in a certain manner, we have the ability to put ourselves in his or her shoes.  Dovey quoted another study which revealed that people who regularly read literary fiction score higher on social perception and empathy tests

Bibliotherapists prove once again the value of reading.  Not only does reading open one's mind to knowledge, but also to empathy.  The ability to empathize can improve our relationships and can make us happier people.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

William Campbell's Reading Room Transforms Lives

California businessman William Campbell lost his wife to cancer.  She left one dying wish, though, and that was that her husband would open a reading room in downtown Oakdale to help the neighbourhood residents.  William complied by packing up his library of books and carting them downtown to set up in an abandonned building which he already owned.  With bars on the windows and graffiti on the walls, he was surrounded by gang members and homeless people.  But he was determined to fulfill the wish of his late wife.

At first, no one wanted anything to do with the Reading Room.  That is, until William posted a sign in the window saying "Free Soda".  Bit by bit, the neighbourhood youth trickled into the Reading Room.  A young girl wanted William to teach her how to read.  A teenage girl wanted magazines with current hairdos.  A young man wanted an SAT prep book to prepare for the exam.  Three boys wanted a computer to play computer games.  William granted each request.

A local reverend questioned Mr. Campbell's motives, fearing that he would tread on his turf, but as he got to know him, realized that the widower's reasons were altruistic.  Local gang members stole his computer and later trashed his store.  William remained undeterred.  He cleaned up the Reading Room with help from the community members who had become his friends.

The young girl was soon reading Dr. Seuss books.  The teenage girl kept him company each day as she read her magazines.  The young man studying for his SAT only scored a 900.  But with William's help he persevered and after writing the exam the second time, he scored a 1540, gaining him acceptance to college and even a scholarship.

The ultimate test was the local gang member, Javier, whom William employed after he stole something from the shop.  Would William and his books work their same magic on him?  William set down the ground rules and Javier started to respond to his attention and encouragement.  He grew to respect and appreciate his employer, as well as the books in his shop.

Made into a movie starring James Earl Jones, it's a heart-warming tale which shows how one person can make a difference.  William honoured his wife's wish of "More Love, Less Hate".  And the widower, who was never able to have a family of his own, gained a family in the process.  The inner city neighbourhood gained a strong mentor and a friend.  Its occupants gained a healthy appreciation for literature, and its ability to transform lives, yet another example of bibliotherapy at work.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Hurricane Carter uses Bibliotherapy to Break the Bonds of Prison

"Carter's spirits rose at [Victor] Frankl's words, which he read over and over.  He had always seen prison as a scourge on his spirit, not as an opportunity for growth.  Frankl confirmed that true freedom could be realized not by digging through a prison barrier but by excavating one's inner life." 
(James S. Hirsch)

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was wrongly convicted of a triple murder in Paterson , New Jersey in 1966. He spent almost 20 years in jail, rotting away in a cell.  Full of anger and bitterness, he found himself wasting away.  He decided to do something about it.  He wrote a book about his life, a book that would make him famous, at least for a short time.  However, it did not secure his freedom, at least not for many years.
Carter figured he had two options:  he could vegetate in jail or he could rise above his circumstances, a type of "inner triumph".  One day, Carter was walking on the prison grounds when a pinprick of light appeared in the prison wall.  It grew bigger and he could see on the other side of the barricade.  "He noticed cars driving down the street, children walking to school."  Carter thought to himself:  "...perhaps the prison walls were not real.  Perhaps he could walk right through that wall."  (http://www.amazon.ca/Hurricane-Miraculous-Journey-Rubin-Carter/dp/0618087281)

Transcending the prison became Carter's mission.  "From that moment on, I decided to take control of my life.  I made up my mind to turn my body into a weapon.  I would be a warrior scholar.  I boxed. I went to school.  I began reading W. E. B. Dubois, Richard Wright." http://www.metacafe.com/watch/an-oxeeb7bJ7hbbYm/the_hurricane_1999_rubin_carter_training/ 

Thom Kidrin, a part of Carter's defence committee, started making monthly visits to the prison, loaded down with books.  Carter would stay awake for two days straight in his cell, with four or five books laying on his bed, pouring over them.

Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning spoke to him.  The Nazi concentration camp reminded him of Trenton prison.  Frankl's message rang true.  "Carter's spirits rose at [Victor] Frankl's words, which he read over and over.  He had always seen prison as a scourge on his spirit, not as an opportunity for growth.  Frankl confirmed that true freedom could be realized not by digging through a prison barrier but by excavating one's inner life." 

Carter devoured book after book.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X was another title which really affected him.  He requested works that had inspired Malcolm X.  Kidrin brought him W. E. B. Duboi's Souls of Black Folk, an anthology of essays on race first published in 1903.  

Carter was beginning to comprehend the redemptive power of literature, how reading a book helped put the reader in another man's shoes.  Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe, helped Carter understand his adversaries.  The anger and bitterness, which had once held him hostage, were beginning to dissipate.  The walls of the prison, which had once seemed insurmountable, were now merely walls of concrete, not barriers to freedom.

Carter served almost 20 years in jail.  A young man from Brooklyn read his autobiography which set off a series of events leading to Carter's release from prison in 1986.  For the full story, read my post "The Power of the Pen" at http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2011/05/power-of-pen.html.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Read Two Books and Write Me in the Morning

"Bibliotherapy:  an ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect." (Wikipedia)

On the weekend, I attended The Word on the Street, a Toronto Book Festival.  Author Ann Walmsley read from her book The Prison Book Club, based on her own personal experience.  She weaves the tale of the various inmates of a prison whose personalities emerge once she shares literature with them.  During her talk, the author pointed out the redemptive power of literature, of how the reader, in identifying with the characters, develops empathy.  She said that recently, an Iranian judge, faced with the overcrowded local prisons, imposed a book reading sentence for a light crime. (http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2015/09/21/lessons-from-a-prison-book-club.html)

Today, I googled the concept and learned a new word, bibliotherapy, which is the "ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect."  In fact, the practice is so ancient it goes back to Egyptian times when the King's royal chamber, which was full of books, had the words "House of Healing of the Soul" written above the door.  

It was not until 1916, however, that the term bibliotherapy was coined when popular essayist Sam McChord Crothers wrote a piece in The Atlantic Monthly called "A Literary Clinic".  As Mr. Crothers explained:  "Then it struck me that is what literature means.  Here we have a stock of thoughts in such a variety of forms that they can be used, not only for food, but for medicine."  Mr. Crothers pointed out that reading a good book could be akin to a "spiritual event"; literature has the power to transform a person. (www.unz.org/Pub/AtlanticMonthly-1916sep-00291

Pioneer librarian Sadie Peterson Delaney used bibliotherapy to treat patients successfully at a Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1924 to 1953.  It is the "human inclination to identify with others through their experiences in art and literature". (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliotherapy

By the 1980's and 1990's, doctors were employing bibliotherapy to treat a wide variety of disorders such as:  OCD, depression, bulimia, insomnia, emotional disorders, alcoholism, sexual dysfunction and self-harm.  As one writer titled his article about the treatment:  "Read two books and write me in the morning."  It is interesting to note that bibliotherapy is often used hand and hand with writing therapy (see http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2011/06/freedom-writers.html).

Even my husband, Rob, practises bibliotherapy.  Our basement is full of stacks and stacks of comics. The more stressed that Rob gets, the more he buys comics and the more he reads them.  They are a welcome change from the Political Science journals that he used to pour over when he pursued his PhD.  

So, the next time you are feeling stressed, pay a visit to your local library.  Sink into a winged back chair and dive into a book.  You will reap the rewards.

For more information, read the recent article written in the National Post by Robert Fulford, "The World of Bibliotherapy" at http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/books/robert-fulford-the-world-of-bibliotherapy.


Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Frederick Douglass Pens Letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe

"The most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population." (Frederick Douglass)

In March of 1853, escaped slave Frederick Douglass penned a letter to fellow escaped slave Harriet Beecher Stowe regarding the plight of blacks in the United States.  Mrs. Stowe had just written and published a little book called Uncle Tom's Cabin which would lay the groundwork for the Civil War less than a decade later.  (For more information about Uncle Tom's Cabin, visit http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/03/uncle-toms-cabin.html.

Mr. Douglass opened his letter with:  "You kindly informed me...that you designed to do something which should permanently contribute to the improvement and elevation of the free colored peopled in the United States."  He went on to describe the social disease that blacks of his era suffered from:  "poverty, ignorance and degradation". (http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-harriet-beecher-stowe/)

Mr. Douglass explained that the only way that blacks could conquer the disease was to be put on an equal footing with whites, "in the sacred right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit happiness." He challenged Mrs. Stowe by saying;  "You dear madam can help the masses...by lifting these from the depths of poverty and ignorance...prejudice is a bar to the educated black among the whites; and ignorance is a bar to him among blacks." 

Frederick Douglass pointed out that America had three black lawyers at the time, but it was not near enough.  Furthermore, whites refused to employ them and blacks followed the lead of the whites.  Mr. Douglass announced that his master plan to improve the lot of the blacks was to open an industrial college.  As he concluded:  "...the most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population."

Frederick Douglass portrait.jpg