My Turn: 'Book' serves as literary magnet in troubled times

In the aftermath of the latest batch of bad news from home and abroad, I sought refuge in the pages of a book long ago forgotten as a literary gem.

Published in 1993, the book became an instant bestseller, catapulting its editor to a fame that far surpassed the recognition he received as U.S. Secretary of Education and the nation’s first Director of the National Drug Control Policy.

“The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories” is a timeless written work edited by William J. Bennett, a conservative pundit who formerly served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. My parents, after meeting Bennett at a book-signing event, presented me with an autographed copy some 28 years
ago, encouraging me to immerse myself in the lessons that “touch the heart” and “help shape the mind.”

The book is divided into 10 chapters, sections or parts, each with a singular focus containing an enduring message. The titles include: Self-discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty, and Faith.

An imposing 818 pages in length, the anthology is a storehouse for some of the favorite stories I heard and read while growing up. Many of these stories, poems and fables, along with selected passages from the Bible are tidily packaged and intelligently presented by Bennett, who 10 years after the book was published ironically became ensnared in controversy for his high-stakes gambling addiction. Perhaps he should have spent more time reading and digesting the book he edited.

Whatever his personal shortcomings, Bennett somehow hit the real jackpot by shining a modern light on such classics as “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, the “Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, and Shakespeare’s “The Quality of Mercy” message from “The Merchant of Venice.”

Likewise, he turned to American history for inspiration, relating stories of character and conviction from Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Nathan Hale, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Then there are choice poems from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, selections certain to stir educational memories of roads “less traveled.”

These works, as it has been said, are a “rich mine of moral literacy, a reliable moral reference point” that can help anchor young and old alike in times of uncertainty, when the foundation of humanity is shaken daily by incomprehensible acts of violence.

While still reeling from news of indiscriminate acts of bloodshed and barbarism, I indeed found a “virtuous” safe harbor, helping restore my faith that “good” can prevail in a world stained by those seemingly bent on destroying it.


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