Man’s Best Friend?

Groucho Marx reputedly quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

I can recall many a night when, as a youngster who had been told to turn out the light and go to bed, I dutifully obeyed but then pulled the covers over my head and finished a riveting chapter (or even an entire book) by flashlight. And I’ve been an avid reader ever since, usually having multiple books in progress at once.

I just started another book, this one for instructional as well as inspirational purposes. It’s Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier. Some of its contents promise to be welcome and much-needed reminders and maybe even a few gentle (or not so gentle) rebukes for not minding what I already know. But much of the contents are offering additional instruction on how to improve my craft, and there’s always room for improvement.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that there are no know-it-alls in any field. Oh, there are a lot of people who think they know it all (and they’re the ones who are eager to let everyone else know that they do), but in reality, no one knows everything there is to know about anything. One of my favorite quotations is from Will Rogers: “We’re all ignorant–just on different subjects.” So I’m reading this book to learn something new.

But I’m also reading it with the hope of being inspired, and we all occasionally need that, too. We sometimes tire of doing what we know we should be doing to be successful in our professions and callings. We often hit the proverbial brick wall when we don’t know what to do next, or we can’t seem to make things work just as we want them to. So we risk stagnating, and we need a little spark of inspiration to motivate us to persevere. Eventually, that brick wall will crack, and we’ll break through the impasse. But that won’t happen unless we’re motivated.

It’s sort of like when you’re just about to your last gasp on the treadmill and then you look over at the 93-year-old man beside you, and he’s running faster and for a longer time than you, and he’s not even breathing hard. Suddenly, you tell yourself, If he can do it, then I certainly can, too! And you get a second wind and press on, achieving more than you thought you could.

I haven’t even started the first chapter of Writing with Quiet Hands yet, and I’ve already encountered some interesting statements. Here’s one of them: “Books are our friends–and that friendship becomes a happy marriage when we sit down to write our own stories.”

In my office are two plaques. One reads, “Write your own life story.” The other says, “Home is where your story begins.” Whenever I read those two statements together, a small voice inside me says, “Now get busy!”

My lesson for the day: Read for information. Read for inspiration. But don’t just read; write. And that’s what I have to get busy doing right now! Time’s a-wastin’!

By the way, if you haven’t yet decided on your next book to read, may I suggest Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries? It might just surprise you!

 

How Many Words Are Left?

The other morning, while I was toiling through my regular routine on the treadmill and struggling with arthritis-pained knees, toes, and wrists, I found myself looking at the bookcase on the opposite wall. There, on the top shelf, were several anthologies and other books that include some of my own writings.

That set me to thinking of how many articles I’ve written. Those thoughts made me realize that I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words over the years since the first article I ever submitted was published back in 1981. One thought led to another.

Behind me, I remembered the huge notebook filled with tear sheets of my published articles. (I say remembered because I didn’t turn to look at it. I once learned a painful lesson about trying to turn around and run backwards on a moving treadmill, and I’m not fool enough to repeat that session!)

As I continued my morning run, warm (very warm!) and dry on a cool, rainy day, I wondered how many words I still have in me. Because we are each given a set amount of time in this life, and, knowing that we, like David, should pray that God would “teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12), it seems only natural that we should also ask Him to teach us to calculate our production in whatever our field of service might be. In my own case, it was first in teaching and now in writing and editing. So I wonder how many more words I have left in me to write.

Do I have another book left in me? Perhaps a couple? None? How many more articles are in me?

The question is not how many more writing ideas I have left in me. Those are a dime a dozen; they’re in every direction I look and in everything I read, see, and do. (And even if my idea well did happen to run dry, myriad people are more than happy to volunteer their ideas that they think I should write about!) The issue is how many of my  ideas I will actually be able to express in words fit for public consumption. Correction: it’s actually how many of those words will editors find acceptable to share with their readers. Without editors willing to buy and publish my words, no number of written words will amount to anything. To make a difference, there must be willing editors and willing readers. And that is the rub.

My mind was racing faster than my feet. The pace of the treadmill decreased, but the incline increased dramatically. As I huffed, puffed, and perspired, I asked myself the next logical questions: What will my last written words be? And will anything I’ve written have made any difference?

I know how I read. Whenever I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I skim and scan. Seeing an interesting title or headline, I might read the lead paragraph. If my attention is not immediately arrested, however, I move on to something else. I don’t have time to waste. As the librarian’s t-shirt read, “So many books, so little time.”

I probably read more than the average person, but I rarely read a complete article unless it really grabs me. If it does, I might even print or photocopy it for possible later use.

But most readers skim and scan even more loosely than I do. And we all forget so quickly. Someone once said that yesterday’s newspaper is good only for wrapping fish or lining a birdcage. Today, we don’t even wrap fish in newspaper, so its value is even less.

Can you name even one article that has made a lasting difference in your life? On the spur of the moment, I can think of only one, an article titled “The Tyranny of the Urgent” (about how we allow urgent demands to crowd out the truly important things of life), but I can’t remember its author’s name or which publication it was in.

Today, we suffer information overload, and we forget so much more quickly and easily. Can any words really take root in our lives to the point of making a lasting difference? Will any of the words that I write make any difference to anyone else?

Only one author’s words have the infallible promise that they will live eternally and make a lasting impression and difference in their readers’ lives, and those are God’s. He said, “My word . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

If written, my words might not get published. If published, they might not be read. If read, they might not be remembered or make any difference in anyone’s life. But it’s nonetheless my responsibility to write them, whether many or few. What happens to them after that is beyond my control. As Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson said, “Duty is mine; consequences are God’s.”

Jesse Stuart, another writer-teacher, encouraged fellow writers to persevere:

And if men thwart you, take no heed.

If men hate you, have no care.

Sing your song.

Dream your Dream.

Hope your hope.

Pray your prayer.

So I write. I don’t know how many words I have left in me, just as I don’t know how much longer my life will last. But I simply do what God has called me to do and leave the results with Him.

Hodge-Podge Day

A glance at my calendar informs me that every day this week has been or is a National _________ Day (you fill in the blank), and I couldn’t decide which of them to write about. None of them really rang the Muse-arousing bell in my head, so I finally decided that they all deserve some mention–but only a mere mention and a brief comment.

ghost-writerThe whole week is designated (just who designates such weeks/days, anyway?) Ghost Writers Week. I’ve been a ghost writer on many projects if that means that I wrote without a byline or any recognition. But when I think ghost writer, my memory sees my four daughters sleuthing around our house in Tennessee trying to find written “clues” that their mother had hidden all over the place and (hopefully) solving the mysteries she created for them. They wore pens or pencils attached to strings around their necks (see photo) and used them to write down the clues they found. Even the neighborhood kids got into the act. The little game was a spinoff from their watching the PBS show Ghost Writer, but it didn’t involve any real ghosts–just their creative mother.

220px-peanut-butter-jelly-sandwich1March 1 was National Peanut Butter Lovers Day, and that strikes a chord with me. I’ve liked peanut butter as far back as I can remember. While all the other kids were eating peanut butter and celery, peanut butter and marshmallows, and peanut butter and jelly, I was inventing a new recipe, one that I still enjoy today (as much for the looks of disgust it brings to people’s startled faces as for the delicious taste)–peanut butter-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. When I worked with my brick-mason father, I took peanut butter and crackers in my lunch every day.

March 2 was National Read Across America Day (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss Day). I’ve already written about how I became a reader and the importance of encouraging reading, so no further comment is needed here–although I could go on and on.

rifleman-lunchboxToday, March 3, is National Cold Cuts Day. I’ve eaten almost as many cold-cut sandwiches as peanut butter sandwiches. They’re the staple of the working man’s lunch. I always had one–usually bologna (or baloney, as we country people called it) or ham, but sometimes chicken salad or pimiento cheese–from the time I took my little The Rifleman lunch box to elementary school. I still enjoy a cold-cuts sandwich jfg-sandwich-spreadoccasionally, especially if I’m in a hurry or working on a tight deadline. They’re quickly and easily prepared and eaten. Almost as disgusting to my wife as my peanut butter-and-mayo sandwiches are my JFG Sandwich Spread sandwiches. And it must be JFG–J. F. Goodson Company–made in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Nothing else will do.

And tomorrow is Toy Soldier Day. I spent many hours as a kid playing with toy soldiers. I amassed huge armies–World War II: American, German, Japanese; War Between the States: Blue and Gray; and American Revolution: Patriots and Redcoats.

plastic-toy-soldiersSometimes my battlefield was the pile of sand that accumulated under the truck port that was attached to the chicken house, where Daddy dumped mason’s sand that had been left over from his jobs. Among the toy soldiers there, I also found numerous doodlebugs that I would coax to come to the surface in their backwards crawl by singing to them: “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire, fire, fire! Doodle! Doodle! Doodle!”

Sometimes the battlefield was a spot under a huge catalpa tree on the bank of my grandfather’s pond when heavy rains had caused the pond to overflow, creating a little river. Many battles were fought across that stream–when we kids weren’t chasing down and catching fish that had washed out with the overflow from the pond and then putting them back.

I think that the biggest disappointment–but perhaps the most important lesson in the principle of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) was when I ordered a set of toy soldiers from a comic book advertisement. The ad pictured the two Revolutionary War armies in the set as being about 2-2 1/2 inches tall. I sent my money and waited eagerly for their delivery. When a 4x6x1-inch box arrived in the mail, I knew that it couldn’t be my soldier set–but it was. The warriors were only about half an inch tall but bigger than the cannons that were included. I never trusted a comic book ad again.

Read something (even if it’s not Dr. Seuss). Ghost write something–or look for clues that you can write down. Go play with some toy soldiers. And while you’re doing those things, enjoy some cold cuts and a peanut butter sandwich. Better yet, try a peanut butter-and-mayo sandwich or a JFG Sandwich Spread sandwich. You never know till you try!

Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week

The first full week of February is Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week. It’s impossible to estimate how many young readers have been born from the works of the various authors who wrote for children and the artists who illustrated those works over the years, but it’s bound to be considerable. And I’m one of those who became a reader as a result of several such authors.

I’m not too familiar with the illustrators, although I’m sure that I spent nearly as much time looking at the drawings of the books I read as I did reading the words. If it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I’ve “read” many books just by looking at the pictures!

When my wife and I had our children growing up at home, we introduced them to many of the same authors who had influenced us as children. We also all learned from those children’s books the truth of Ronald Reagan’s sage observation: “You can never be lonely if you have a good book.”

It’s hard to single out one, or even just a few, authors who most influenced me and my family members because we read a host of writers, but I’ll take a stab at it. I’ve written in earlier posts of how the Hardy Boys series and the Landmark Books influenced me. But those were just some of the many, and they came during my late elementary years. Here are a few others that came even earlier.

beverly_cleary_19711Beverly Cleary wrote the two delightful series of books about Ramona and Henry Huggins. Our girls loved those books.

ramona-the-pest-by-beverly-clearyhenry-huggins-by-beveraly-cleary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

robert-mccloskeyhomerprice1Robert McCloskey wrote (and, talented man that he was, illustrated as well) Homer Price and Make Way for Ducklings. (Who could forget that fabulous donut machine?)

 

 

 

 

laura-ingalls-wilderlittlehouseontheprairiecd1Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House series of books from which the TV series The Little House on the Prairie was born.

 

 

 

 

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie1books-by-eb-white1the-elements-of-style1E. B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Imagine my surprise when, years later, as a fledgling editor, I realized that he was the same author as one of the duo of Strunk & White fame, co-authoring The Elements of Style.

And how could I forgive myself if I didn’t pay homage to Jesse Stuart? His Penny’s Worth of Character, The Beatinest Boy, and The Rightful Owner are especially important for developing values and character in young readers.

jesse_stuart1pennys-worth-of-characterbeatinest-boy

 

 

 

 

 

 

rightful-owner

 

These authors and many others like them did a great service to millions of young people over the years because their books made–and continue to develop–readers. (If I’ve left out your favorite authors, please write and tell me who they were and why.)

May our mantra–and our personal example–ever be what was written above the door of the children’s reading room of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts, Library:

 

 

Books are keys to wisdom treasure;

Books are gates to lands of pleasure;

Books are paths that upward lead;

Books are friends. Come, let us read.

 

 

The Power of a Good Book Series

Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.

When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.

I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.

hardy-boys-mysteriesThe first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.

These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.

landmark-booksThe second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.

landmark-alamoI remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.

During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, andlandmark-pony-express one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.

landmark-flying-tigerslandmark-d-dayUnlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.

Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.

 

Review and Gift Suggestion

Are you looking for that perfect gift for someone special? If that someone special happens to be a history buff, I’ve got a suggestion: a copy of my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. Here’s a link to an unsolicited review of the book from the Civil War Monitor magazine to help guide your gift-buying suggestion:

http://www.civilwarmonitor.com/book-shelf/peterson-confederate-cabinet-departments-and-secretaries-2016

Book Cover Peterson_978-1-4766-6521-4The book is available both in paperback and as an e-book. You may purchase it directly from the publisher, McFarland & Company (www.mcfarlandpub.com or 800-253-2187) or from a variety of online booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and others.

 

What I’m Reading: For Self and Others

I’ve been an avid reader ever since I caught the “reading bug” in Mrs. George’s fifth-grade class. At first, I read a little of everything, but gradually I narrowed my focus to historical nonfiction. But “history” includes just about anything and everything. After all, everything has a history!

As I began first my teaching and later my writing careers, my reading material reflected not only my personal interests but also the demands of my job–whether teaching (I read what I would soon be teaching to broaden my knowledge) or writing (doing research reading for the topics about which I was writing). As I’ve aged, my reading material has changed a bit, too. My reading has been less for personal fulfillment and more for the edification of others, sharing what I’ve been learning with others who also might find the topics of interest.

For those reasons, people quite often ask me, “So, what are you reading now?” This post is a way of answering that question–at least for the moment. The answer will undoubtedly change in the next week or so!

dsc_0121Right now, I am reading two different books for two different purposes. First, for both my own enjoyment and for a writing project on which I’m working (killing two birds with one stone, so to speak), I’m reading a biography of old-time baseball pitcher Christy Mathewson: Christy Mathewson, Christian Gentleman: How One Man’s Faith and Fastball Forever Changed Baseball. So far, it’s been quite interesting. The subject of the book was a remarkable exemplar for young, Christian athletes and for adults of all ages. And his accomplishments in the field of baseball were only one side of the man. Second, as part of my preparations for teaching Sunday school, I’m reading a commentary on the epistles of John. Deep stuff. But necessary for a full understanding of what the Christian life was meant to be as lived out in practical ways by every believer.

I think those two books’ messages are interrelated, although that was not my intent when I set out to read them. Christy Mathewson apparently both believed and lived his Christian faith, and others noticed. And that’s precisely what John communicated in his epistles. Believers are to live out their faith, not just to profess it but also to demonstrate it, to be exemplars of it played out in real life.

National Read-a-Book Day

DSC_0111I had to chuckle the other day when I discovered that September 6 is “National Read-a-Book Day” and September 7, tomorrow, is “Buy-a-Book Day.” To top it off, September 16, ten days from now, is “International Read-an-E-Book Day.”

I guess, based on the dates of those various special days, that someone wants you to read the book before you buy it. It’s usually the other way around. Few books are so good that, once you’ve borrowed and read them–or read them while sitting in a book store’s coffee shop–you’ll then go and buy the already-read book. That’s sort of like buying a coloring book that’s already been colored in.

DSC_0590 - CopyI’ve got a better idea that will allow people to kill three birds with one stone, so to speak: Let’s make it “Buy-My-Book Day.” Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is a good read for all history buffs. If you buy it in e-book form and read it, you celebrate all three days at once–Buy-a-Book Day, Buy-an-E-Book Day, and Read-a-Book Day. Besides, proceeds go to a worthy cause–me!

And since we’re talking special days, September 5 was “Be-Late-for-Something Day.” I never thought I’d see the day when people needed to have special encouragement to be late! (But, in honor of that special day, I purposely delayed mentioning it until today, a day late.)

Even as a kid, I hated to be late for anything lest I miss something important or interesting. As I got older, I began to hate it for a less personal reason: lateness shows a disrespect for the time of others.

The university I attended took great pride in the fact that everything there started on time–not a minute earlier, not 30 seconds late. On time. Meals. Classes. Concerts. Ball games. Everything started on time. So firmly did the administration insist on punctuality that if you weren’t there when it started, you didn’t get in. (I worked as an usher, and I had to enforce that rule many times.) So strongly did the administrators believe in teaching the importance of punctuality that they gave demerits for tardiness. People hated the rule (especially those who were habitually late), but after being denied access once or twice or getting enough demerits, they learned to be on time!

Back in the hey-day of railroading, railroads knew that punctuality could not only get people and freight where they and it needed to be but also saved lives. Deviation from time schedules proved deadly until a Mr. Ball got the railroads to operate on standard time. That got them “on the Ball!”

Maybe instead of a “Be-Late-for-Something Day” we should have a “Be-on-Time Day.”