Because it's always important to consider the context of quotes, a bit of background information on Mr. Mann: Considered by many to be the Father of American Public School Education, Horace Mann was born into poverty in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796. He struggled to put himself through college and eventually studied law and became a politician. In 1837, he left the political sphere and was appointed the first Secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts. While at this post, Mann campaigned endlessly to reform educational policies and was responsible for establishing school district libraries. (source)A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost always a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices.
With that biographical information in mind, it's easy to see why Mann placed such stock in books and reading.
In thinking back on my own emergent literacy, I found this quote to be extremely relatable. This particular line really spoke to me - "Children learn to read by being in the presence of books." I credit my nightly storytimes with my parents for contributing to my learning to read. But having been raised in a house full of books, it seems like it was almost a matter of time before I picked up a book and started reading. And as my mother recalls, that is precisely what happened. One day, a three year old me picked up the copy of In Cold Blood which she had been reading from its place on the kitchen table and just started reading it aloud. (I realize that's not the most age-appropriate book but such is life) Looking back on it, I think my learning to read was the result of those storytimes as much as it was a matter of circumstance. Either way, I am eternally grateful to my parents for raising me in a house full of books.