First, my thanks to all of you who have responded to prior posts about reading and doing. I’m awed by the insights and experiences you share. You inspire me to keep searching for the many ways we can lead well-read lives. And that brings me to the following observations, followed by a question for you.
It was ten years ago, when I was just beginning to ask Levenger customers about their reading lives, that I asked an older woman whom I knew had read very widely whether there was one book that changed her life. She laughed good-naturedly, but said so many books had changed her life—mostly in small ways, sometimes in big ways—that picking just one didn’t make much sense to her.
As I’ve grown older and had the opportunity to expand my own reading, I find myself agreeing with that wise and experienced reader. As an example, the books we recently discussed here—Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, Three Cups of Tea, and Out of Poverty—have changed my life in a subtle but important way: I now have confidence that it is possible for all the world’s children to attend school and that illiteracy, like polio, can become mostly a problem of the past. Not that it’s easy, but if enough people set their minds to accomplish this, and go about it in the right ways, it really is possible.
I suppose this is the way most reading changes most people—subtly.
We gain all-important perspective as we experience more of the world
through the civilizing power of the word.
Sometimes, though, a book tips us into action. Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world did that for me.
A dose of Farmer’s good medicine
Last summer a friend told me she adored this book. That recommendation, combined with the fact that I have long wanted to read something by this prize-winning author, got me to read it.
The book is about a brilliant, intensely driven professor of medicine at Harvard who is obsessed with solving some of the worst diseases humans face, and doing so on a global scale. That life alone would be worthy of high praise, but in addition, Paul Farmer is something of a saint. Eschewing the comfortable life of an elite in the developed world, Farmer chose instead to build a clinic in the worst part of what is perhaps the most desperate country in the western hemisphere: Haiti. He spends most of his life there, personally tending to the sickest patients.
For more than a year, Tracy Kidder trailed Farmer not only to Haiti, but also to Peru and Russia on medical missions and conferences and many spots in between to really understand what makes the man tick. It’s a great story.
But how did it get me to do something?
First, I felt intimated by Farmer. A few years younger than me, this guy not only mastered the medical science of his chosen fields, rising to the zenith of established medicine, but also had personally cured hundreds of people with his own skilled mind, big heart, and capable hands.
Moreover, Farmer inspired others to work with him to create a new organization called Partners in Health that has already improved the way tuberculosis, among other diseases, is treated around the world—saving lives by the thousands.
Like Paul Polak, Paul Farmer wasn’t content to gain merely an academic understanding of the field to which he would devote his life; he wanted an up-front-and-personal understanding, imperiling his own life by disease and even violence, to gain this perspective.
While I was reading the book, my own life seemed pale in comparison. True, at Levenger, I’m proud of the products we make that can help people read, write and practice their professions. I often tell our staff that we’re not saving the world, but our customers are.
But lacking in my life was anything resembling the hands-on experience that Farmer has with his patients. So, after years of supporting the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition with modest donations, I decided to become a tutor myself.
I had intended to do something like this in coming years—when the kids were all out of the house and when Levenger didn’t demand so much of my attention. But I jumped the gun because of Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Reveling in what’s next
I’ve tutored only a few times so far, but already I can tell the need I have harbored to do this was deeper than I imagined. My 26-year-old Mexican student is a joy to help because he is so hard-working and intent on success. He works as a gardener, sending some of his earnings to his parents back home. After working all day in our Floridian sub-tropical conditions, he showers and cleans up before walking to a school a few miles from our offices here in Delray, where he practices his English Monday through Thursday, for two hours.
His roommates make fun of him for studying, but he badly wants to pass the GED and get ahead. The well-worn Spanish/English dictionary he carries in a pocket pays mute testimony to his diligence. He wants me to help him with his pronunciation, and has particular trouble pronouncing the “x” as in next.
Last week, when Tropical Storm Fay closed all our schools, I felt empty for not being able to spend our Tuesday evening session together. I wanted to hear his progress and to pass on a suggestion I picked up from a speech pathologist about how to conquer that pesky “x” sound.
I’ll never be a Paul Farmer, but because of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, I think I’ll be a better Steve Leveen.