By Wayne Litke
When we lived on the other side of the province, I had a good friend who was almost triple my age. He was a retired immigrant farmer and was often seen picking bottles around town and in the ditches along roads. I always assumed he had to supplement his pension by collecting recyclables. He rode a bicycle whenever possible and would fill the basket to capacity with drink containers and then proceed to hang large bags of cans and bottles on the handlebars as he pedaled home. His travels would often take him on a 30-mile trip which was impressive considering this was in his late 80s when I met him.
My friend’s name was George Zondervan and we first crossed paths at work and then later at a writing workshop where I got to know more about this astute individual. George would sometimes use strange terminology in the stories he submitted to our writing instructor, but they were always interesting and sometimes made the teacher turn red and giggle like a school girl as she read his literary works out loud.
His command of the written word and English vocabulary was better than mine and seldom did he use a word in an incorrect fashion. George was a character and as our friendship developed I learned that he certainly did not need the funds earned from his long trips picking bottles and cans. In fact, he actually helped several people by loaning them money on nothing more than a handshake. I know of one loan (and there have been more) that he made to a local businessman who was experiencing tough times. Some of his cash transactions at his financial institutes left employees wondering what he was up to or if someone was exploiting his good nature. However, George was a smart man and knew the value of a dollar because he worked hard for every one he earned. Even in his 90s, his mind was sharp, as was his wit and he was a wealth of knowledge on anything from politics and current events to history, science, arts and literature.
To my amazement I learned that George never attended a college or university, but he should have because he was a self-taught painter, photographer, musician, writer and philosopher. He was a devout atheist who knew the Bible better than most of the visitors who knocked on his door and tried to share their views on God. He credited his vast knowledge and skill to three things: an intense curiosity to learn, perseverance to master new skills, and a desire to read anything that would increase his knowledge or broaden his mind.
I was actually envious when I met George because he had time to read and could explore anything he wanted through books. Television was not a crutch since he only watched news, educational programming and a few sporting events such as the Olympics. On the other hand, I had small children who needed attention and was completing renovations to a 100-year-old house. My reading time was largely spent on technical manuals and schematic diagrams for work. I still recall how enjoyable and relaxing it was to get away from work-related literature and make the time to read a biography about Hank Williams Jr. I cannot recall why I chose that book, but it was a welcomed change of pace that helped me relax and think about something that was not related to work at my job or home.
Looking at the world around us – the information age and the need to be connected to friends and associates all the time – it seems like the desire to read, learn and explore new frontiers through literature is fading. Reading in everyday life is being downgraded to abbreviations and acronyms found in text messages, and is being somewhat replaced by video and voice messaging. Reading remains an essential ingredient to success, but its importance seems to be diminishing in our social world and that will have a big impact as children grow up and have less contact with books – that boring media that relies on a person’s brain to create the vivid images, exciting scenes and emotions that come to life with every turn of a page.