Read any essay about the love of books and the author will undoubtedly mention an obsession with reading born in early childhood. My story starts with a twist. I had no interest in learning to read. When it came time to begin the process of decoding diphthongs and navigating the minefield of i’s before e’s except after c’s, I said, “No thanks.”
My kindergarten class was divided into small groups of four or five students, and I became ringleader of my group, convincing the other members that we had far better things to do than waste our time on those pesky lined work sheets. There were block towers to build! Dress-up games to be played! Reading was for suckers.
My teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, was a smart lady. She cocked an eyebrow and then wisely let me lead this rebellion unfettered. “Suit yourselves,” she told us. But there would be no block building or dress-up corner privileges. We could sit quietly while the rest of the class learned to read. Fair enough. I was too busy basking in my newfound power to consider the consequences.
At first, the other kids in the class—those who hadn’t been brave enough to stand up to Big Literacy—were envious of the freedom that allowed us to doodle at our desks during reading time. But after a few days, something began to shift. We began to get bored. And all the other kids started to be able to do something we couldn’t. They were looking at letters but seeing words. Suddenly they had a superpower, and we didn’t. My days of academic protest were over.
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The story has become family lore. I’ve heard it retold by my mother countless times, and truthfully, I have no memory of a time when I couldn’t read. Looking back, I’ve got to hand it to Mrs. Schmidt. My grandmother was the director of the school—and her boss. I can only imagine the conversation at the staff meeting that particular week. “Well, Doris,” I picture my teacher reporting, “your granddaughter has informed us that she won’t be learning how to read.” I’m sure they had a good laugh.
My grandmother was born on a chicken farm in Kansas and graduated from UCLA. In 1949, as a young mother of two, she set sail for Honolulu. My grandfather had been hired to be the chaplain at Punahou School, and together they raised five children in Hawaii. When her youngest started preschool, she began teaching. My grandfather died in 1974, two years before I was born. By then, my grandmother had been promoted to director of Central Union Preschool, where she worked until retirement.
I owe my love of reading to my grandmother. The preschool was an extension of her, and I grew up surrounded by books. My earliest memory is of being carried as a three-year-old from her office to my classroom. My siblings, cousins, and I all attended her school, and we spent countless hours at her house, curled up with books on the pūne’e (a basket-shaped Hawaiian daybed). Five of my cousins grew up on the mainland, but reading was so important to Gramsie (as we called her) that she would record cassette tapes for each of them, reading aloud the books she sent each birthday.
In our family, books were treasured gifts that were exchanged on every holiday. I still have a shelfful of Golden Books, each one inscribed with the date and occasion: Christmas 1977, from my mother; Valentine’s Day 1978, from my father; Easter 1982, from my sister. As a five-year-old, I probably couldn’t have imagined a world where there wouldn’t be someone at hand just waiting for the chance to read to me. Why bother learning to do it alone? Where was the fun in that?
Gramsie died a few years ago, shortly after my son was born. She was able to meet him once, and I have a cherished photograph of her beaming down at his three-month-old face. I still miss her, but I know just where to find her when I’m feeling down. My first copy of Goodnight Moon is tattered—a piece of clear packing tape runs down the spine, holding it together—but inside, there is magic. When I open the cover, my grandmother’s handwriting is waiting for me. It is her voice I hear when I reread my favorite books from childhood.
By the time I was ten, I was a binge reader. I loved series best, when one book picked up where the previous one left off. Beatrix Potter, Curious George, and the Berenstain Bears led to Beverly Cleary, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle. By the time I finished the Little House books, I was ready for Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley was seventy-five years old by the time L. M. Montgomery retired her, and I was still heartbroken when the series ended. Then came the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. It was like cheap boxed wine for a closet alcoholic. You could keep topping off the glass and no one would see the empty bottles stacking up. Reading was good for you; it didn’t matter if the writing was crap. Just one more chapter. I can stop anytime.
If one grandmother got me hooked on reading, it was the other who staged an intervention. Grandma Harrison was born and raised on the Upper East Side of New York City. Her mother was a stage actress who had performed in Paris, London, and New York before she married. Her father was a prominent lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. As the only child of two only children, she had a glamorous but lonely childhood. In the (sadly unfinished) memoirs she wrote at the end of her life, she vividly recalls the moment in school when she learned to read:
There was always a period in the morning when the children were directed over to the bookcase to pick out any picture book they pleased. I picked out a big flat book called The Sunbonnet Twins. I had seen it before but when I opened it up, suddenly I could read every word on each page. I was very excited. I went over to the teacher. She was excited too. “I can read,” I announced to Miss Mil when she came to pick me up. When we got home I went over to my bookcase, pulled out a book called Bunny Bright Eyes, and read it from cover to cover.
From that day my life changed. I became a bookworm—sometimes to my mother’s annoyance. She would come into the nursery to play only to find my nose in a book I didn’t want to put down. For an only child, the love of books was a wonderful gift.
Grandma’s generation dressed for dinner, and six o’clock on the dot was cocktail hour. My first memory of being chided for reading was during one of these cocktail hours. My grandfather mixed highballs at the bar cart while the adults got into lively debates about politics, current events, and whatever else Grandma was holding court about on that particular day. As children, my sister and I usually sat on the rug, snacking on goldfish crackers, bored to tears by all the grown-up talk. So one day I plonked down in an armchair in the corner and disappeared behind my book. I don’t remember her words on the day of the intervention, but oh, I remember my grandmother’s tone. This was not acceptable behavior in polite company. I wasn’t completely feral—I knew better than to read at the dinner table. But, much to my introvert chagrin, hiding behind a book to avoid small talk was not an option. There was a time and a place for reading. Everything in moderation.
During long summer vacations and snowy Christmas holidays at my grandparents’ farmhouse in Vermont, I roamed freely among the many bookshelves. When I was twelve, I traveled as an unaccompanied minor for a solo visit with my grandparents. It was a rite of passage for the grandchildren. My older sister had visited Berlin with them just before the fall of the wall, but my trip was decidedly less epic. There are only two things I recall: I got my first migraine while watching the high dive at a traveling circus on a scorchingly hot New England summer day, and I pulled two books off of Grandma’s shelf—Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk, and Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
These were the first truly adult books that I read. I had been reading questionably age-appropriate books for a few years—once Lois Duncan hit the scene with I Know What You Did Last Summer, it was a teen terror bonanza of Christopher Pike and V. C. Andrews for me. But these were young adult books, and the tropes, plot twists, and characters had the subtlety and depth of a kiddie pool. It was Rebecca that pushed me into the deep end. I discovered Gothic literature—Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights—the more tragic, the better.
Anyone who doubts the studies that show reading fiction increases empathy surely wasn’t a bookworm as a child. Long before anyone close to me died, before I learned that boys could break my heart, fictional tragedies were the worst things that happened to me. I shed real tears over A Little Princess, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, Old Yeller, The Velveteen Rabbit, Bridge to Terabithia—my God, I don’t think I could get through Bridge to Terabithia dry-eyed today. I was extremely fortunate. Terrible things did happen to people I knew—a second-grade classmate was shot and killed by her uncle, the daughter of family friends was kidnapped and murdered, a boy in my sister’s class died in a car accident—but nothing truly horrible happened to me or my family. We were lucky, and thanks to books, I had the self-awareness to realize it.
My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and I bid adieu to childhood. My older sister was sixteen, and she promptly bailed to enjoy an entirely unsupervised life as the roommate of our newly swinging bachelor of a dad. My younger siblings were five and one, still babies, and my mom, depressed and overwhelmed by single motherhood, fell apart. She began drinking and soon became an alcoholic. When I went in search of something to read, I would find abandoned coffee mugs half-filled with Chardonnay on the bookshelf. Someone had to be the adult in our household, and too young to know any better, I stepped into the role. Since I was a reader, I constantly held up my own life to the mirror of the lives I read about. Literature gave me perspective. Things could be so much worse. I mean, look at Ellen Foster! This wasn’t the Summer of My German Soldier. Anne Frank I was not.
I was a good student—that momentary lapse in kindergarten was a one-off—and in junior high, my English teacher assigned us The Count of Monte Cristo. It was my first big book, and I loved it. I can still remember the heft of those five hundred pages and the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt finishing off the tome. My introduction to Alexandre Dumas began a love affair with the Romantics: Stendhal, Flaubert, Baudelaire. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that escapist literature was my coping mechanism. The quotidian affairs of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott didn’t particularly interest me back then. I wanted big sweeping action and adventure. Tragic love affairs. Unhappy endings. The teenage drama queens of Sweet Valley High led me straight down the path to Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley.
My first breakup with books occurred during my senior year of high school. Until then, I was predestined to be an English major in college. I had won writing and English awards at school, and as a sophomore, I took a Shakespeare seminar with upperclassmen as an elective. You know, for fun. All that changed in AP English. The reading list was challenging: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Our teacher, Dr. Lynch, taught us the art of close reading, or how to analyze a text deeply. We spent class after class decoding symbolism, debating the intention of the author, constructing and reconstructing thesis statements. And I hated every minute of it. Critical analysis killed my love of reading.
I had a crisis of confidence. I was not a born critic. I didn’t trust my own opinions, or even my authority to have an opinion. What happened to willingly suspending our disbelief? Why insist on destroying the magic of letting a book transport you? How should we know what an author’s intention might have been? Those class discussions drove me crazy. Every time a pimply teenager espoused some half-baked theory about what Woolf was thinking, I wanted to scream. I had always read for pleasure—I didn’t believe reading should feel like work. I enrolled in exactly one English class at UC Berkeley, just enough to satisfy the liberal arts requirement. When the professor praised my writing and recommended I join the student-run newspaper, The Daily Californian, I ignored him. I was a lover, not a writer.
As an adult, my bookshelves defined me. In the days before Goodreads and Google stalking, you had to judge potential friends and mates by their actions, their personalities, and their stuff. I was disdainful of acquaintances who didn’t fill their apartments with books. I dated men based on their bookshelves. When my future husband and I moved across the country so that he could attend grad school in Providence, Rhode Island—and again on the return trip to San Francisco two and a half years later—we exceeded the weight limit on our door-to-door moving crates and paid a stiff penalty. When we joined our personal libraries in matrimony, we had thousands of books, and shelves in every room.
The longest I ever went without reading were the first two years of my son’s life. After he was born, I lost myself. Sleep deprivation and the arrival of the iPhone conspired to keep me from books. I worked in publishing and was surrounded by books every day, but when I collapsed into bed at night, all I could muster the energy for was thumbing mindlessly through Facebook. I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I plowed hopelessly through stacks of baby books, seeking a solution for the sleepless nights that dragged on for nineteen months. (A plague on all your houses, sleep experts!) Every six weeks or so, I scrambled to finish whatever book we were scheduled to discuss at book club. It felt like homework. For the first time in my life, I found no escape and no comfort in reading.
Thankfully the old parenting adage that “the days are long but the years are short” is also the truth. I’m back to my old self, a reader to the core. Now that my son is old enough to enjoy long chapter books before bed, I’ve had the pure joy of rediscovering old favorites and experiencing new books with him. It was a delight to realize that The Phantom Tollbooth was just as good (better even?) than I remembered it. We read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before. And Harry Potter. Oh, Harry Potter!
For my son’s sixth birthday, I gave him the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with gorgeous full-color paintings by Jim Kay. When the series first came out, I was still in college, studying abroad in Italy. I was too busy at the school of Chianti and Prosecco to get fired up about wizards. Now I get it. Rereading the first two books through the eyes of a six-year-old boy, I fully appreciate the genius of J. K. Rowling. When we finished the first book, we immediately flipped back to the beginning and started it again the next night (although we skipped the Muggle chapters and headed straight to Hogwarts, by request). The next time we finished, we went out and bought book two the following day. I don’t think he’s old enough for Death Eaters, so I’ve told him he has to wait a bit for the next one. Until then, he’s biding his time, dressing up in his Jedi-turned-Hogwarts robe and casting imaginary spells around the house. In April, he announced that he wanted to be Harry Potter for Halloween.
Toward the end of the school year, my son’s kindergarten teachers gave a presentation to the parents about what the students had been learning. Some parents were concerned that their children were not yet reading. It’s a progressive school, an Italian-immersion program. At six, my child can speak Italian, but he can only read the simplest of words. I almost laughed out loud when the teachers defended themselves: “We are confident that every student in our class could read, if we forced them to. We choose not to.”
Mrs. Schmidt would have been proud. Gramsie would have cheered. Of course these children will learn to read. Probably over the summer, if we all chilled out with the camps and sports and screens and let our kids get bored more often. Books are the best remedy for boredom, but it’s a remedy you have to discover for yourself. Just like my friends and I did in that kindergarten classroom in Honolulu.
I have no doubt that my son will be a reader. He may not be as single-minded about it as I am, and that’s fine, but it’s in his blood. His parents are readers. His grandparents are readers. Every home he visits, on every family vacation, is filled with books. Snuggling up next to my son and reading aloud every night before bed is my favorite part of the day. I survived those first two sleepless years; I know that time is short, that this window is closing. Soon he’ll be reading on his own and I’ll be the one calling him to the dinner table, pulling him out from behind the book.
The love of reading that has passed down through generations of my family is the greatest gift that I could imagine and the greatest legacy I can leave my child. I am so lucky to have been raised as a reader. The essayist Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” When we read together, our hearts beat as one. At least that’s what my grandmothers taught me.
Excerpted from I’d Rather Be Reading: A Library of Art for Book Lovers by Guinevere de la Mare, published by Chronicle Books 2017.