I don’t remember learning to read. All I know is that from the time I was tiny, way before starting school, I had a fascination with the printed page. It seems like the most astonishing magic to me that those squiggles and lines dancing together could represent sounds.
At age four I was the queen of phonics. I would sound out words on cereal boxes and toilet paper wrappers. I would read billboards and letters carved in soap. I thought it shamefully wasteful that car license plates had letters that had no particular meaning. Even though I could not read them, I would sound them out just the same.
Once I got old enough for Brownie scouts I began making weekly forays to our town library. This was a tiny little stone building at the edge of downtown. I remember walking down the sidewalk that curved steeply along a hill from my elementary school to the street where the library was. With every step I took my anticipation mounted and I eagerly planned what sort of book I would get to check out next.
I rapidly progressed from picture books to chapter books and then moved out of the juvenile section to read some grown up biographies. I loved learning about Florence Nightingale and Helen Keller. By fourth grade I was moving through all the animal books like “Brighty” about a donkey that lived in the Grand Canyon and “Misty of Chincoteague.” When things got crazy in my family (which happened a lot) I would grab one of my books and head for the giant mulberry tree in the back yard. I could hide out there reading for hours to stay out of harms way.
My greatest joy and biggest disappointment came from libraries.
When I was really little, I thought that the library in our small town held every book in the world. So, I made up my mind that I would go through them one by one until I’d read them all. I would begin at the red shelf in the west corner, then progress up to the green shelf, and on to the blue. Once I was done with all the books on the west wall I'd move over to the wall next to it and do the same thing. I checked out books about planets and books about dogs. I checked out a book on small engine repair and murder mysteries and history books. Some I didn’t understand at all. But I would plow through each one as best as I could, sounding out each word and making stead use of my dictionary to looking up the vocabulary I didn’t understand.
I thought it was a rather noble project I’d taken on, and felt rather smug with myself.
Then one day when we went to visit my grandparents in Flagstaff my grandmother decided to take me to the big city library so I could see all the books there. I was horrified. That library was six times the size of the little Podunk establishment I’d grown accustomed to. There were whole rooms of books of a certain type, not just separate shelves. I realized all at once how naive I had been. I could read ever waking moment of the rest of my life and NEVER be able to read all the books in the world. Recognizing the futility of the dream I had been so ambitious about nearly broke my heart. I was so overwhelmed I broke out in sobs.
My grandmother was mystified. Of all of her grandchildren, I loved books the best. She thought I would be delighted to see this treasure trove of print. She asked why I was so upset. I tried as best I could to explain through my tears how I had wanted to read every book in the world, because I thought the little library back home held them all. I told her how awful it felt to know I would be missing out on so much because there was just no way I could read all these hundreds and hundreds of volumes, even if I lived to be old as her.
She smiled and wisely said: “Oh honey, don’t worry about that. Half of them are junk. The trick is to learn how to pick the truly good ones and spend your time with those. You don’t need to go filling up your head with a bunch of garbage just because somebody put it in a book. But if you get good books with solid stories and honorable characters, THOSE books can become your very best friends.”
She was right. But then, she often was.
What sort of books engage you the most? Are there ones you could read again and again?
Which books have had the biggest impact on you?