September 21

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The Adventure of Inquiry by Marc Aronson

I grew up surrounded by books in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, languages my father spoke, and German, my mother’s native language, and many in English. Books were words and images but they were also something else – connection. Somewhere on those pages, in those strange letters, were the worlds my parents had left behind in Russia, Germany, and Austria. Since my parents were set designers, many of their books were filled with paintings covering from the entire history of world art. Even though I never learned to read in my parents’ languages, and the text in many of those books was too advanced for me, books spoke of connection to somewhere beyond me.

                My own daily world was sports to play and teams to root for, friends, school. Books told me there was a vast, deep, rich, surprising set of experiences just beyond what I knew. I sensed that books could be a conduit to that treasure house, those marvels. Yet my parents’ books both enticed me and kept me at a distance (or I remained distant from them). And then one day I found an old book, from the 1930s, that took me out into the wide world: Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels (1937). I don’t recall if my parents owned it, my first guess is that it was the kind of book you find in someone’s summer home or attic, along with shelves of really old National Geographics from when they had print, not images, on the covers. Once I opened the book I fell in love.

Halliburton was a real world traveler. In his books he led a group of young people with him to the most fascinating places in the world – from climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan to the Taj Mahal to diving down the Mayan “Well of Death” in Mexico. While the tour group was fictional, the books were meant to invite readers like me to see real, fascinating, places around the world. There were black and white photos with the chapters to show the spots and prove that they were real.

Halliburton’s books blurred fiction and nonfiction in ways we would not approve today, and he shared the racial views of white/European dominance. Today he is of interest as a reflection of his time, not as a modern read. But he gave me a model of what a book can do: be the invitation, the bridge, that meets a young reader wherever s/he is and opens up the world. Through Halliburton I began to feel that I could, I should, visit the Inca buildings on Machu Picchu in the Andes, or the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece., or the temples of Angor Wat in Cambodia, or  the Citadel in Haiti. Each site came with a story of its origin. Each story was fascinating. Each place was alluring, mysterious, real – waiting for me.

By the time I was a young teenager I graduated from Halliburton to Thor Heyerdahl. His passion was figuring out how the great stone heads on Easter Island came to be built. Easter Island is the most isolated spot on earth, thousands of miles of open ocean from anywhere. The first astonishing fact is that the Polynesian sailors, the world’s greatest navigators, found a route to it. The second it that they filled it with these large stone heads and set them up to stare out into the ocean. Heyerdahl noticed that people living high in the mountains of South America built boats out of reeds to sail across Lake Titicaca. Could they, not the Polynesians, have been the ones to cross the Pacific and reach Easter Island? To test his theory he built a reed boat and launched into the Pacific. In his book Aku Aku he spelled out his research and his ideas while in Kon Tiki he described his voyage to Easter Island.

I loved that he had found new truths digging into archives. I loved that he was the kind of bold adventurous spirit I imagined Halliburton had been. But as I become an older teenager I read a sober account by an academic anthropologist who challenged Heyerdahl. Today no one thinks his theory is correct. But even that is fine. The fact that books could argue with one another, challenge one another, and propose new ideas opened a new sort of adventure. It is not just that there is great knowledge out there waiting for us, for me, for readers, to discover: we can join in the discovery. Knowledge is open, not settled.

                I built a career as a nonfiction editor and author – that is to say, I got paid by publishers and readers to be curious. If I learned of a team of archaeologists making new discoveries at Stonehenge I could fly off to England, stay with them, and write If Stones Could Speak with them. If Paul Fleischman wanted to open our eyes to climate change, I could edit his Eyes Wide Open. If I wanted to explore the dark, complex, and oh so important life of J. Edgar Hoover, I could do that in Master of Deceit. And, now being curious is what has been so exciting about creating nonfiction anthologies with Susan Campbell Bartoletti: within one theme authors can have so many different perspectives and points of view. Knowledge coming through the adventure of inquiry – that’s what reading means to me.

 

Marc Aronson is the author and editor of many titles for young people, including War Is: Soldiers, Survivors, and Storytellers Talk about Warco-edited by Patty Campbell, and Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of LiesMarc Aronson is a member of the graduate faculty in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and lives in NJ.