The Big Read Blog (Archive)


September 16, 2009
Washington, DC

East 125th Street in Harlem, New York by cisc1970 from Flickr

There are numerous statistics to support the importance  of reading literature. But I find the most persuasive arguments to be those personal testimonies from people who have found their lives radically transformed just by opening a book. In the interview excerpt below, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants, talks about his first encounter with Willa Cather's My Ántonia and its indelible effect on his life.

I was a kid about 14 years old.  It was summer reading in the hot New York summer. I remember being in my mother's bedroom, the one by the window in the front, reading [My Ántonia]. And, suddenly, I was no longer surrounded by the canyons in New York City. I was out in a place that I'd never heard of before and never had any understanding of, out in the Great Plains [with that] imagery of the Great Plains, with the agriculture sweeping out in all directions, with sod houses and with immigrants, just like my parents were, trying to make a new life for themselves in America. They were not West Indian immigrants as my parents were, but they were immigrants from Europe, Bohemians, all sorts of strange kinds of people with strange languages I'd never heard of in my life.  And so, for that instant, I was transported almost 2,000 miles away to a new place in the land.  But the common experience was there of immigrants trying to make  a life in this new world. [Ántonia] was about my age, and Jim, at that time, was about my age, so I could connect to these two people.

Anybody who tells you that as a 14-year-old boy growing up in the streets of New York, where there were so many things to do, he was a lover of reading is misleading you.  But this book started me reading and, as I have said, once I got to My Ántonia I started finding other books. . . .So, I could say without fear of contradiction that My Ántonia really opened new worlds for me, and I realized that those new worlds existed in books.  This was before the days of television. This was before the days of the Internet, of course, and so books were the way that you got exposed to another world.  Books were the way in which you got excitement in your life, and it became at that point for me a lifelong habit to read. 

As I go around the country now talking to many, many youth groups, I'm asked all the time "What's the most important thing that kids need to learn in school?" I say it's the English language.  They should master reading, writing, and speaking because when you master those three, and you get that through reading books and mimicking books, what you hear in the books, what you gain from books about how the English language is used, it opens all the rest of the world to you, math, science, social studies, history.  You can't do any of that if you can't read and understand what you're reading and if you can't articulate what you've read.  In the case of one young kid in New York City that  world and that door was opened to me by My Ántonia.

For more on My Ántonia, check out The Big Read educational materials.


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