I was in my last year at boarding school before I picked up a book and read it from cover to cover. Before that, words were a collection of tiny line drawings in black ink, placed against a light background and bunched together in clusters of illegible form. Much of my childhood was spent alone in my room with one illness or another. School became a place I rarely went, so my mother hired tutors to keep me in the educational loop. I didn’t fully realize that I couldn’t read, because I’d been taught the mechanics in school, I simply could not gain entry.
Tutors came to my bedroom and left stacks of books on the night table, with demands for memorizing and reciting to avoid failure. Bright pink markers guided me with clear certainty to mountains of exercises and reading assignments. I saw the tutors and the books as ugly intruders, the certain onset of a headache. I would look at the pages as one would look at a book of Latin or Greek, and put it aside. I wanted to comply but didn’t know how. Once, in my frustration, I copied the pictures I saw in pencil and ink. I made a great sweeping portrait of Mark Twain and handed it over instead of a book report. It landed in the trash with more threats and verbal lashings describing the dismal future I’d have if I failed to cooperate. If I had been brave, I would have torn the pages and filled my bedroom with paper airplanes, but I didn’t do that. I was not brave.
Reading was painfully slow, but I got better as I got older, better at faking my inability and better at recognizing words. I envied those who saw it as a source of comfort or escape into a better world. When we were assigned book reports in school I would ask others to describe the story or ask a librarian to talk to me about the book. I was able to slide by, but hiding and the extra effort made me weary.
When I was sent to boarding school to recover my health, my roommate gave me John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. She owned his entire collection which sat on a shelf between our beds. Here, read this, she said, as I lay in bed with a cold. It will help pass the time. I had never read anything that was not academic. I opened the book out of sheer boredom, expecting as ever to be turned away, either by dull content or its failure to allow entry. To my surprise and delight, I was invited inside. The words were easy and enjoyable. I could read it! I went from cover to cover and wanted another. I was so proud of myself. I was 17 years old and it was the first book I’d read from start to finish. This Steinbeck guy didn’t seem so bad.
Unfortunately, the experience didn’t begin a love affair. I had too many year of seeing books as the enemy for that, plus they required holding still, which I didn’t enjoy either. After so many years of illness, I wanted to be out in the world, doing, not stuck in a room reading.
My character is not very different now. I do love finding a good book, but never suffer an author I don’t connect with immediately. I find beauty and comfort in language, especially in classics like Anna Karenina, and the well-met phrases of Shakespeare. Dick Francis and his stories from being the jockey for Queen Elizabeth are other favorites. And now, as miracles have it, I have my own book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Who would have thunk? Surely not the little girl lying miserable and alone in her room, starring at the towering piles of books near her bed, and wanting to burn each and every one.