Distractions are part of the deal for writers. A child cries. A stomach rumbles. A favorite TV show is on in another part of the house. And if you’re a writer at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, one of those distractions each year is a vivid reminder that books matter. A lot.
Today a brass band marched along the brick path just steps from my house. We are celebrating the 135th anniversary of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. And you can tell by the name it’s that’s old, can’t you? Because today we could call this organization something much jazzier, something that pops and intrigues. But the CLSC itself is jazzy and intriguing. Founded in 1878, in its beginnings the CLSC was essentially a four year course in reading. Really, you say? What’s special about that?
“Education, once the peculiar privilege of the few, must in our best earthly estate become the valued possession of the many.” In 1878 those were the words of Bishop John Vincent, one of Chautauqua’s founders, and in our words today? Everybody deserves an education. Everybody deserves to read and learn. At that time, none of those things were a given.
To make sure of this, to make certain that people outside the gates of Chautauqua Institution took part, Bishop Vincent founded the CLSC with two purposes: To promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature, and to encourage individual study, to open the college world to persons unable to attend higher institution of learning. Reading circles formed worldwide using the books introduced by the CLSC each year. Enthusiastic readers devoured selections, and the CLSC became the prototype for book clubs and university extension courses in years to come.
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that at that time in history education was a privilege of the wealthy and that education for most people stopped after they learned basic reading, writing, and arithmetic?
Times have changed and higher education is now available, although we still have a way to go to make it more affordable. But despite this change, the CLSC is still going strong. Just ask me. The parade, complete with “floats” and chanting readers, just went by, steps from my house. In a few minutes this year’s graduates, those who have read at least twelve books from the CLSC approved booklist, will walk through the golden gate with their class, just as graduates have done since the nineteenth century. This year’s books may be substantially different from the books that first year, but the result is the same. Ideas have been presented, knowledge gained, and the readers, with their interest piqued, have gone on to other books and other ideas stimulated by them.
Each CLSC class creates a banner, many of which have been displayed at the Smithsonian. I love watching these historic banners being carried to the head of the parade by our Chautauqua teenagers. Will these kids and the littler ones who also march be marching with their own class in the future? I think so. Because this place, and all places like it, libraries, classrooms, reading groups, are still encouraging reading and learning. We’re all so lucky to be part of that. Books are at our fingertips. All we have to do is open them.
I wish everyone had an annual brass band parade to celebrate reading and learning.
I’m always grateful I’m privileged to witness this one and remember the people who so long ago believed that books would and could make a difference in lives everywhere.