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The Fourth Wall: Lost, and found, between the covers of a good book

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

It was wrapped in a page of newsprint and placed on my desk on the day before Christmas vacation in fifth grade.

Our class was doing a Secret Santa gift exchange, and most of the presents were toys or gag gifts. I’d received one of the latter and went off to determine which classmate had been the offender.

When I got back to my desk, there it was ... “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I never figured out who put it there, although in retrospect it had to have been Mr. Campbell — our teacher who, shortly after we’d returned following the break, would leave us to fight in Vietnam.

I never saw him again.

I had always been a reader, but Mr. Campbell must have had his reasons for giving “Huckleberry Finn” to a 10-year-old boy. When I read it then, it was all about the adventure, and I was privately thrilled that “Mr. Mark Twain” had gotten away with dropping “ain’t” so easily and often into the story.

Some young’uns might not believe it, but when I was 10 if you used “ain’t” in writing or speech, you’d be marked down in class, or scolded by grown-ups.

Kids now, of course, are exposed to all sorts of “spelling choices” and substitutes for the Queen’s English.

As is the case with so many, my experience with “Huckleberry Finn” was altered dramatically when I read it again later in life — its richness and complexity challenged me in ways to which I was oblivious as a child.

The same book ... a different reader.

It’s summer vacation time now and, because of the heat and (eventually) the smoke-filled skies, 10-year-olds and other kids will be spending time indoors. The Jackson County Library System has launched “A Universe of Stories” — this year’s version of its annual Summer Reading Program — and my advice would drag them kicking and screaming away from their button-pushing mind-control devices and reintroduce them to books.

It’s simply too important.

This year’s Kids and Family Reading Report, issued by Scholastic, cites a disturbing trend that has been labeled the “Decline by Nine.”

The report found that while 57% of 8-year-olds say they read books for fun five to seven days a week, that number drops to 35% for 9-year-olds. A similar decrease from one year to the next also occurs when those children are asked if they “love reading.”

Ain’t that a shame.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

“Huckleberry Finn” is 135 years old this year, while “1984” and its corrosive society manipulating the minds, thoughts and language of citizens helpless to stop it turns 70.

I first read “1984” in high school — by which point television, rock music and the movies had become major communication influences — but it wasn’t until I read it again in college (during a class on Orwell) that its themes had taken root.

We were (finally) out of Vietnam, and Nixon had resigned. Many of my peers saw our construction (not Oceania’s destruction) of words as the weapon of choice against a government that had unmasked itself as untrustworthy.

The power of lifting open a book cover was a liberation, the freedom to enter a Universe of Stories that flipped the On-switch toward critical thought.

Atomik Research, commissioned to do a study on the intentions of families which in comes to reading, reported this week that 90% of those surveyed planned to have their children (ages 6 to 17) turn off their electronic devices during certain periods of the day this summer.

About 55% of the parents said they planned to read the same books as their children as a bonding experience and, while the summer goals charitably can be called modest (a quarter of those surveyed wanted their children to read one to three books during the school vacation), nearly three-quarters said they knew that reading was as important during the summer as it was during the school year.

“Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains? ... Without words, we’re history’s orphans.”

Earlier this year, I found myself lost within the pages of “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon, a story that takes place in an eerily prescient universe where it’s not just books that are disappearing, but words themselves. A society reduced to gibberish through the insidious allure of technology designed to make individual lives easier by eliminating the need to think.

It is a difficult read. “Ain’t” ain’t among the words created by those controlled by an omnipotent presence determined to destruct language.

School no longer structures my days, and the time I can find to embrace the power of opening book comes when the daily rituals have been as completed as exhaustion will allow.

Between the covers ... and under the covers.

A survey conducted in May across 13 countries by Kelton Global found that 71% of those asked who read weekly reported feeling happier in their lives, compared to infrequent or non-readers.

I’m not sure a book such as “The Word Exchange” is designed to make a reader happier with their place in the world ... other than knowing, that even in today’s society, it’s available to be read.

I think Mr. Campbell would approve.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin, who also writes the “Get Off My Lawn” column in Sunday’s Mail Tribune, can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

Robert Galvin