Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Gentle Reader

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 3, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Walking down Broadway in downtown Boulder, Colorado, the shy, gangly teenage boy opened the door to the store with his younger sister in tow. The sign out front said Duck Soup. The boy looked inside the small shop and saw used books and records with some other weird stuff thrown in. As he browsed through the stacks of paperbacks, the title and the cover art of a book grabbed his attention. A futuristic scene burst from a bright orange-yellow cover. The blurb at the top said, “Tales of the Near Future by the Master of Science Fiction.” The boy picked the book up and carried it to the counter. The friendly man took his quarter and placed the book Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov in a paper bag along with a colorful flower power sticker. “You will enjoy the book,” the man behind the counter said. “Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors.”

That night, the boy opened the book and began reading. He was fascinated by the stories of space-age detectives, the ultimate computer, future Olympics, baffled aliens, a cave boy, a suicidal computer, and a new kind of mathematician. Before he went to sleep that night, he had finished reading every story. When he woke up in the morning, descriptions of the future raced through his head. He made plans for the time he would go back to Duck Soup and buy another book. 

The next week, the boy and his sister were again looking through the books at Duck Soup. The owner of the store asked him, “did you enjoy Nine Tomorrows?” “I sure did,” the boy replied. Time seemed to stop for the boy as he and the owner discussed the stories. “Do you have any more books by Isaac Asimov,” he asked. “Here, you might like the book Foundation,” the owner replied. “It is the first book in a series. That night, the boy became immersed in mathematician Hari Seldon’s story and his life developing psychohistory. 

Over the next year, the boy made weekly visits to Duck Soup. He purchased lots of paperback books and collected many flower power stickers. He looked forward to his visits with the owner, discussing books. Before long, he had purchased all the Isaac Asimov books for sale at Duck Soup. He had become immersed in the world of Foundation and Empire. He read all the R. Daneel Olivaw novels. He became obsessed with the robot short stories.

On every visit to the Boulder Public Library, the boy looked for books by Isaac Asimov. Because Asimov was a prolific writer, publishing over 500 books on a wide variety of topics, the library had many choices. At the library, the boy discovered the collections of Asimov’s science essays. From November 1959 to February 1992, a science essay by Isaac Asimov appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction every month. Over the years, his publishers collected these essays into more than two dozen books. As much as the boy loved reading about Asimov’s future in his short stories and novels, the science essays became his favorite thing to read.

I was the boy whose life was changed on the day that he walked into Duck Soup. A whole new world opened to me as I read Isaac Asimov’s books. I found his nonfiction writings incredible, not only because of the sheer volume of books but also because of its extraordinary breadth and diversity. Though he concentrated on the sciences and especially loved astronomy, there are not many topics that he did not include in his writing. One of the things that he said that stuck with me is, “Education is not something you can finish.” I never attended college, but because of my curiosity, which Isaac Asimov helped foster, I never stopped learning.

In Asimov’s nonfiction essays, the conversational writing style made me feel like he explained those challenging scientific concepts to me personally. In his articles, when he talked directly to his readers, he would start by referring to them as Gentle Reader. When I came across those words, it made me feel special, like an important, brilliant and knowledgeable person was speaking directly to me. When he was at the end of his life, one of the last things he wrote was, “To all my gentle readers who have treated me with love for over 30 years, I must say farewell.”

When I first agreed to write a weekly column, one of the goals that I had was to write in a conversational style that would make the reader feel at home. I had no formal training or prior experience. As I sat at my computer to write that very first article, I remembered all those Isaac Asimov essays that I had read in my life. I tried to emulate his style of speaking directly to his readers. When it came time to write the final thought wrapping up the article, without even thinking, I started the sentence with, “Gentle Reader.” In every piece I have written since, I have used the phrase Gentle Reader to introduce the conclusion of my thoughts. It was not a formula that I decided on in advance, but it feels right to me.

In the book of 1 John, when the Apostle John wants to address his readers personally and wants to call attention to an important point, he refers to them as little children. He uses this form seven times in the book. In 1 John 2:1 (NKJV), he writes, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Gentle Reader, I hope that I have been able to connect with you through these articles in some way. Your comments, encouragements, and affirmations have blessed me. My goal is writing that is thought-provoking but not confrontational. I hope that there will be something in each article that you find inspirational. I leave you with the words of the Apostle John; “My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love.” 1 John 3:18 (VOICE)

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