An article I was reading recently mentioned the U.S. amphibious landings near Casablanca in North Africa, and immediately I recalled the title of a book I had read as a preteen: From Casablanca to Berlin. That set me to thinking about the greatest influences on my interest in and reading and, ultimately, teaching and writing of history.
I didn't have to think long about my answer to that question: (1) Mrs. George and (2) Random House's Landmark Books series.
Mrs. George, my fifth-grade teacher, organized a reading contest. She distributed a small envelope and several 3x5 index cards to each student. We wrote our names on the envelopes, and she thumbtacked them to a bulletin board. She took us to the library every week, where we chose books to read. Every time we finished reading a book, we wrote the title on the index cards. (We were on the honor system about our actually having read the book.) Whoever read the most books got a prize.
I don't remember what the prize was or who eventually won it. It wasn't me. But I do know that I came out a wi9nner because I learned to enjoy reading, especially history. It was during that contest that I first encountered the Landmark Books.
The Landmark imprint was born when publisher Bennett Cerf had trouble finding a book on the pilgrims for his preteen son in 1948. (Some of you who are old enough might recall Cerf from the CBS TV game show "What's My Line?" on which he and a variety of other famous guests, including Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Steve Allen starred.)
Cerf decided to fill the gap in the preteen history market by publishing books written by celebrated, award-winning authors. None of the authors he approached was an academic, but they were all skilled writers who were passionate about their subjects and knew how to write in a way that connected with young people.
MacKinlay Kantor was a Pulitzer prize winner. Robert Penn Warren had won two of the coveted prizes. Pearl S. Buck had won a Nobel Prize. Other accomplished authors who wrote for the series included Shirley Jackson, C.S. Forester, and war correspondents Richard Tregaskis, Quentin Reynolds, William Shirer, and Don Whitehead. Thirty-five of the 114 authors were women, unusual for that time.
My recollection of From Casablanca to Berlin by Bruce Blevin Jr., one of Cerf's stable of writers, had started my thinking about the Landmark Series, but it didn't stop with that title. I began to recall many others I had read, and each one led to another and another.
Peter Stuyvesant of Old New York
Paul Revere and the Minutemen
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys
The Swamp Fox of the Revolution
Sam Houston, the Tallest Texan
Remember the Alamo
The Pony Express
But it was the books on World War II, which dominated the series during the early to mid-1960s, that really turned me on to history.
The Flying Tigers
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
John F. Kennedy and PT-109
The Story of D-Day: June 6, 1944
The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler
The books were all almost 200 pages long and were lavishly illustrated with line drawings that captured the reader's attention. (During the 1960s, they added photographs.) The dust jackets featured colorful and exciting cover illustrations. Inside, the cover flap listed other titles in the series, guaranteeing that readers would be searching the library's shelves for more Landmark Books in the series. Ultimately, readers had about 180 of the books from which to choose. I think our school's librarian ordered almost all of them.
The Landmark Books introduced an entire generation of young readers to the adventure of history, and many of those youngsters pursued its study or the teaching of it as careers. I was one of them, first teaching history and now writing about it.
While I was teaching, I ran across a used book sale that included a large number of the Landmark Books. I bought the whole lot of them to use in my junior high history classes. They proved great tools for helping slow readers and unmotivated students who thought that they hated history. Later, when I left the classroom to pursue editing and writing, I donated most of them to a Christian school's library. For some reason, I retained a dozen or so of them.
My wife recently discovered those books in a dusty box in our attic. The sight of them flooded my mind with memories--of Mrs. George, of the tiny Halls Elementary School library, of hours spent glued to the exciting stories of historic events and people, of gradually weakened eyes that resulted from so much reading, much of it by flashlight under the covers after I was supposed to be asleep.
Thank you, Mrs. George, for encouraging me to love reading. And thank you, Bennett Cerf, for publishing the Landmark Books that opened my eyes to the enjoyment and lessons of history. The weakened eyes weren't a bad tradeoff for such great returns!
The Bible influenced me even more than the Landmark series, but I didn't learn the value of that sacred text until college and afterward. But that's a topic for another post.
What books have influenced your life more than any others? Do you have the equivalent of a Landmark Books series that motivated your reading and/or writing? If so, share it with others, so that they, too, can benefit from it. You never know what it might lead to!