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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Constance Lindsay Skinner Award Dinner, Part 3

February 24, 1961


Speeches at Women's National Book Association's Constance Lindsay Skinner Award Dinner

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Distinguished people [laughs]--[applause from audience] ladies and gentlemen. I think I need hardly tell you that one cannot listen to so many wonderful things said about a person and really take in that you are that person, it has always seemed to me someone else. Someone else [laughs] who's being looked at [laughs] from quite a different standpoint; so I thank you all gentleman very much indeed and I'm deeply appreciative. But I think I should begin by saying that I don't recognize myself at all [audience laughs] just somebody else. I think I was asked to talk to you about the value of reading and I can hardly think of an audience that needs less to be told about the value of reading [ER and audience laugh]. Now if I'd been asked to say how much I think comes to an individual who learns to read when they are young and learns to enjoy it, I could have done that easily because I was a very lonely child. And if I hadn't had books, I don't think I would have known anything about the world. But books were people that were alive. Everything I read became a real living story, something about people that really lived.

I was fortunate, my grandfather had the usual kind of library I suppose people of that generation had. There were all the classics and he happened to have a great interest in theology, so the Gustave Dore bible still stays in my mind for its illustrations. And nobody ever told me not to read anything, and I have never told my grandchildren who wander through my house not to read anything because I'm quite sure the result uh with me was never harmful. If I asked two embarrassing questions about a book, the book occasionally disappeared. [Audience and ER laughs] But that was only because I became too embarrassing to my young aunts. But otherwise there was only one restriction and oh how I hated it. My grandmother thought that you should never do on Sundays the same thing you did on weekdays, So I had special books for Sundays and I would just get interested in the Sunday book when the end of the day would come and it would be taken away to be kept until the next Sunday.[ER and audience laugh] And that was really a trial [laughs] that I really thought was hard. But otherwise, I had no restrictions at all.

And I was amused the other day to be sent the Gadfly, which is going to be re-published, and I remember when I first read the Gadfly. I didn't dare say that I was reading it because I had heard my young aunts say that oh this was really a very exciting but um perhaps not quite a proper book. So I hid the fact that I was reading it. I hid it under my mattress and read it in the early morning hours. [laughs] No one would know that I was reading it. And here the other day I get it back as a manuscript will I please read this; it's being re-published [ER and audience laughs]. I wished that I could say that today I read as much as I read up to the age of fifteen. I read as much but it's quite different reading. I read mail and mail and mail, and things that people send in. Someone today, sent me an idea which was four solid long hand pages on both sides. Not type-written but long hand. An idea they were sure President Kennedy must have as nobody else had thought this thing through as this gentleman had thought it through. Now the sad part of it is, of course, that I can't take it for granted that President Kennedy has nobody around him who's had these same thoughts; [ER and audience laugh] so what I have to do is to send it to some poor individual who may find out what has come in to President Kennedy [laughs] and either use it or use an idea or what not. But you never dare not read and not do something about what comes in because perhaps somewhere there is an idea that may be valuable. So I remember this ever since the days in Albany; I never dared not read the things that people sent in where they said this will save the world because perhaps there was an idea that might be useful. The other thing we deal with a little differently today is innumerably youngsters, Helen Ferris, who would just find it so convenient if I would write their term paper for them. [ER and audience laugh] "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I have chosen you. We were told to choose someone we like and I've chosen you. Would you please answer these questions 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10? [ER and audience laugh] Or would you please just tell me some anecdotes that have never been heard before which [ER and audience laugh] I can use in my paper." Now we just referred them all-all to the books that have either been written by somebody else or that Mr. Canfield has kindly published for me [laughs]. And we hope that they go and read them. We don't know [laughs] We get also of course, many many other requests. I probably see more young editors of high school papers than most of you see who are sitting in this room [laughs]. They come I um--A little while ago, I decided that there is no reason why I should see each one separately, that I would collect them and have three or four at once. It doesn't work [Audience and ER laugh] because each one wants your whole attention and they don't like having to ask their questions separately.

[ER and audience laugh]

So now I allot fifteen minutes to each one. But you know, it's strange how fifteen minutes can somehow fill up a whole morning [audience laugh] or a whole afternoon. And people say to you, "Well oh you must have so much time Mrs. Roosevelt, you're not doing as much, and you must have a great deal of time." By the time I reach a day that I think had some free time, there is never any free time. And so when you talk about leisure [laughs], I think I might have had a better answer because there are a great many things you do that actually are probably things that you would not do if you didn't have some leisure. Um I know that um I like to swim. I like to walk a little still. And I show innumerable people through the Hyde Park, the par-the house we have given to the government. And I see a great many people both at Hyde Park and New York for pleasure. And so I suppose all of that is leisure time, but I don't think that I know what it is to say I don't know what there is that I could do. There is always stacks and stacks of papers by my desk that I could read. And they sit there and they sit there and I want to read them and I mean to read them and I take them in little bunches on trips of every kind. Sometimes I get through most of them sometimes I don't. But no matter how hard I try, I never today read in the way I did as a child, climbing into a branch of a tree and reading a whole morning through, only coming in when the bell was rung authoritatively from the porch to say, "You have got to come in to lunch!" And I would like that time to come again. I would like to sit for four hours and read a book. A book I really wanted to read, not something that I just was asked to read or had to read but something I had chosen to read. I've never lost the habit of reading. I think if you acquire that young, you find how important the written word is.

Nowadays, children have so many distractions. Television, the movies, the radio, and in many ways they are better informed than we were. But I think all of these things accentuate the need for the written word. Now I watched in the last campaign the debates between the two candidates and I found, I think I'm accustomed enough to listening to political speeches so that I probably took in as much as most people do. But I found that I wanted the record in the newspaper the next day to be sure what every point was and what each individual had said. And I think that if you once acquire, the ability to read, I was interested to have one of my boys say to me the other day, "I wish I could read Coster" and I said, "Goodness so do I." And he said, "Oh you read twice as fast as I do." I think perhaps he hasn't read as much lately. I'm sure he could very quickly read faster. But I think that's one reason why some youngsters don't read as much, they can't read fast enough. And I think we could give them, we should give them the opportunity to really learn how to read and take in more quickly what they read; it can be learned today. And I think we should be sure that young people do have that opportunity. I think too that we could cultivate in young people the understanding of what a beautiful book is and the feeling that this is a treasure that you want to hold in your hand and look at and guard. I think too few of us really tell our children about the beautiful things that we may have collected, the stories about them, the reasons why we treasure them. And then, we wonder why young people don't have an appreciation of the beautiful things of the past and that have been gathered around them and that they seem to take completely for granted.

I remember my own terror once when my husband gave me a first edition and I made a little tear in it. I was simply petrified; I hardly dared go into the room and tell him. He looked at me very kindly and he said, "Well probably someday eh if we really read this book, someone would have torn it that much, so don't feel so badly about it", which was very kind. But I believe we could do a great deal more with young people to make them appreciate beautiful printing, beautiful bindings, and all kinds of lovely things. I was in Tucson not long ago, I went with a lady who has lovely things, twelve she was putting in order. And we looked across a fence and she said, "There are three little monsters that live in that house. They break my windows." And I said, "How old are they?" "Ten to nineteen." And I said, "Oh they can't be little monsters." She said "Yes, they are! They have no regard for anything that is nice." And I said, "Well, let me suggest that you try an experiment." I said, "Ask them to tea and give them everything good you can think of to eat and then take them the round of your library and show them. Tell them the story of how someone in the family bought this and why and what it means. And do that with everything that you have and I think you'll find somewhere you will strike a responsive chord." And after I got home, she wrote me and said, "I did what you suggested and you know they're nice boys. They loved it." [Audience laughs] Well, I think if we would just take the trouble to bring young people to an appreciation of beauty, beauty in books in the content but also in everything that goes into the making of a very precious book.

The other day I had the opportunity to go through the Morgan library and see some of the early printed um manuscripts, some of the very-very-- the original manuscripts, some of them in long hand. And immediately I thought how wonderful it would be for a child to have the facsimile of some of these early manuscripts to see how they were corrected, what the author had changed, to see the drawings, to see everything about it reproduced for them. I think it would add enormously to the interests that young people would have. Now there's nothing I can really tell you about the value of reading. You all know its value [laughs] much better than I do. But, I would like to say that I think sometimes we older people do not give our young people a chance to really learn through their elders, that this can be great enjoyment. I remember one day sitting with John Goldman, who was one of the veteran producers of plays on Broadway, and my husband in the library at Hyde Park. And I didn't even notice that at the other end of the room, were some of the young people.

And John Goldman said, "Wouldn't you like to read"- saw that I was reading-"Wouldn't you like to read something?" and I said, "Yes, I'd love to read you because Franklin would enjoy one of Kipling's stories, called The Butterfly that Stamped." And so, I read it through and before I had finished, all the young ones had gathered closer and closer, and when they found that both my husband and John Goldman had enjoyed this very much, they were impressed. And at one dinner party in the White House once, I remember my husband saying to me across the table of young people, they were in college, they were college age, the girls were eighteen, nineteen, and one of them was starlet from Hollywood and all the boys thought she was wonderful. And suddenly, my husband across the table said "Darling, I have a young lady here who's never heard of the Brushwood Boy. [Audience laughs] I just told her I thought it would be a lovely thing, in the movie and for her to act in it, and she's never heard of it." [Audience laughs] He said, "I'd like to go around this table and ask every one of you if you've ever read the Brushwood Boy." Well of course he went around the table and the only two who said they had ever read it were our own two sons. [Audience laughs] And one of them very shame-facedly said, "But we wouldn't you know; only mother read it to us." [ER and Audience laughs].

Well I think perhaps if we could impart our love, our enthusiasm, our enjoyment to the younger people, that it would add a great deal. I don't mean that I don't think they don't get a great deal from their television, from their listening to the radio, from movies, but I think you can add and broaden and there was never a time in history when we needed so much to broaden our thinking. We cannot any longer allow our young people to think narrowly; the world is so close to us. It grows smaller as our ability to reach it, to reach to the ends of it, becomes greater. And we need to think in terms that are stretched constantly to include greater and greater thoughts, all coming in perhaps, to the realization that there is nothing that stands alone, that everything is tied to all the other things. People are tied together today, but everything even that we have considered, purely domestic interest today has to be considered in the context of world interests. And I think this is the contribution we can make to the young people: stretch their horizons and show them that reading is one of the ways in which that can be done and that it will prepare them for life, for life in this changing world, as nothing else will do.


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
  • : Women's National Book Association   [ LC | ISNI | VIAF | SNAC | FAST | Website ]

Names and Terms Mentioned or Referenced


About this document

Constance Lindsay Skinner Award Dinner, Part 3

February 24, 1961


Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library