The other day I rehung my whiteboard from vertical to horizontal and began to ponder what that meant.
Horizon is one of those words that has layers of meaning, whose connotation is at odds with its denotation. It’s from the old French orizante, which in turn can be traced further back to the Greek horizōn (kyklos) to bound, from horos – boundary.
The horizon is what fences us in, forms the boundaries of our world. It is the vanishing point, the edge, beyond which we cannot see.
Yet we don’t think of it that way.
The horizon invites us to travel. It broadens our world rather than constricts it. We equate it with exploration, journeys, the promise of some El Dorado beyond our shores.
I probably first learned the word horizon in elementary school, where it adorned the cover of one of our reading books. The Scott, Foresman Co. – the same outfit that published the Dick and Jane books, by which I learned to read – published a series of readers for elementary schools in the 1960s, the titles of which all related to journeys: Wide Horizons; Open Highways; Cavalcades.
I remember them viscerally but not in detail. They were large-format books with a series of stories, some factual, some fictional, many of which were supposed to impart some lesson, build our vocabularies, and strengthen reading comprehension.
Besides their sometimes insipid content, the books turned reading into a chore by ending each selection with a series of questions or prompts designed to measure our recall and understanding.
Even at 8 or 10 years old, I understood these titles to be metaphorical, although I did not know the term. Reading was an adventure! It would take us on journeys to other lands, other peoples!
There was a certain absurdity to the whole idea of widening our horizons with this pap. And as a child who had never even been to our state capital (Providence), my horizons were limited indeed.
In a literal sense, I couldn’t see far. Our old farmhouse was ringed by trees and a few other houses. My bedroom had a north-facing window, which looked over my mother’s garden and my father’s sawmill, and a west-facing one toward the winding road, a window so low you had to crouch to look through it.
When we occasionally ventured out, we did not travel far – to my grandmother’s house in a nearby hamlet, to the A&P for groceries, into town on Fridays so my father could visit the imposing, marble-floored bank.
The ocean lay just 10 miles to the south, but we rarely went there. In time I would grow to love the sweep of blue water that appeared to vanish into nothingness. But as a child it was a rare treat.
So of course whatever lurked in these books was unfamiliar. Whether their stories depicted fairy tales and foreign lands, or the seemingly ordinary suburban world of the 1960s, they were exotic to me.
My father did not wear sweater vests and sit around smoking a pipe, as these “Dads” did, nor did he have a vague white-collar job to which he trundled an attache case every day. His work was physical, demanding, and ever-present. He came into the house sweaty, sunburned, and trailing sawdust from his pants cuffs. My mother scrubbed his green work pants with Lestoil to get out the pine pitch.
She, too, did not conform neatly to the Scott, Foresman type. Although she wore aprons and toiled away in the kitchen, she would rather have been reading a novel or watching Mike Douglas than frying hamburgers or rolling out piecrust.
If I became an inveterate reader, it was not due to Scott, Foresman. I broadened my horizons with real books borrowed from the library. At first my mother took me to the one-room village library, where I selected Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss books for her to read aloud. Eventually I devoured the Nancy Drew series and children’s novels by E.B. White, Lois Lenski, and Mary Norton.
These books did take me on journeys – the series by the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene brought me to a strange 1930s world where teenage girls drove roadsters and ate something called luncheon. E.B. White evolved naturally from Beatrix Potter’s trouser-clad rabbits. Lois Lenski introduced me to rural Florida in Strawberry Girl, and Mary Norton created a miniaturized world in The Borrowers series that was all too familiar to a powerless 11-year-old.
What was the difference between these books and our “readers”? Maybe it was simply the fact that I chose them. Taking them out of the school context, with no questions to answer at the end, also sparked the metaphorical journey that Scott, Foresman tried to replicate.
Many of the Open Highways, Cavalcades, and Wide Horizons stories were by accomplished authors, like Corneila Meigs and Robert Louis Stevenson. That mattered little if they were assigned rather than discovered.
Eventually I traveled, literally and figuratively. In high school I finally saw Boston and New York, as an adult New Orleans and San Francisco.
And my reading has taken me around the world. I have sledded with Sir Ernest Shackleton, climbed icebergs with John Muir, rafted down the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I have gone back in time to the London of Dickens and Pepys, the moors of the Bronte sisters, the Lake District of Wordsworth. I have been to the South Seas with Maugham and Stevenson, to India with Jhumpa Lahiri, to the Korean islands with Lisa See.
Today I live in that old farmhouse with its limited views. But with the right book, the horizon is always wide.