The second hand seemed to take an eternity to make one lousy rotation. Tick. The minute hand moved the slightest fraction. A minute is forever to a seven-year-old sitting on the living room couch next to her mother, the simple supposed easy-reader book between them.
“Go ahead. Sound it out.”
The mom’s words could have been encouraging. Should have been. Maybe they had been the first, second, or even the third night of this routine, but after weeks of spending what Mom insisted was “important quality time,” the girl heard only impatience in those words.
Trips to the library to pick up books for these evening readings were boring. The little girl only marvelled at the graffiti-riddled bathroom walls while she stood in the stalls. Talk of renovating the library in an otherwise nice suburban city had begun.
Reading “x” number of books to get enough stars on that huge poster board chart the teacher had at the front of the classroom with every student’s name and progress on it was perhaps the only motivator. It was a race to see who could get enough stars to earn another free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut for the Book-It program.
Mmm. The thought of a pepperoni pizza just the right size with that melting cheese, on a rare occasion when the family actually went out for dinner…
“Cyndi, please pay attention.”
The little girl sighed. Too many exceptions to the rules of long vowel sounds and words like “thought” and “rough” and soft and hard “c” sounds… Why did reading have to be so difficult?
So, she trudged through another ten page book with a few words on every page, perhaps taking fifteen minutes that felt like fifteen hours. All the while, the clock…tick…an eternal minute… tick…tick…
At the end, the girl rather thought these reading sessions were almost as bad at the numerous times she’d fallen while learning to ride a bike without training wheels. The neighborhood had wooden fences lining the sidewalk in every yard, and going down from the bike, hands out in defense, meant a hundred splinters in the palms…then the painful hour or two of sitting on the bathroom floor while Mom removed them with the tweezers…one by agonizing one. Yep. That was what reading was like for this girl.
This girl was me.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t read. I just didn’t want to. This general dislike of reading continued as I grew older, and although I managed to usually get a B in English, it was the subject I struggled with. I was the kid who would rather watch the movie instead of read the book. In fourth grade, we were assigned C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remember trying to read, only to find myself bored after a couple of pages. I watched an old cartoon movie version from the 70s, which lacked much of the detail of the book…which plainly showed when test time came.
Interestingly enough, when the class was assigned The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, I loved that book. Although I’m not sure what it was about this book that captured my interest, to the point that I was reading ahead, I think it might have been the intrigue of a swan who wrote on a chalkboard he wore around his name to communicate with a little boy. I remember very little about that book all these years later, but it was probably the first book that I enjoyed reading.
By fifth grade, I still wasn’t much into reading. Then at the class gift exchange for Christmas, I got a Babysitters Club book (by Ann M. Martin). I was at the age where the prospect of babysitting appealed to me, and the thought of a bunch of girls my age or a little older having a club for babysitting sounded super cool. I could relate to the characters in the story. Maybe that was my first indication of a love for reading: needing to find something I related to.
I read that book quicker than anything and for pleasure. The Babysitters Club series would become my first books I actually read for pleasure. I spent that next three or four years engrossed in them, anxiously waiting for the next book to come out. I spent my hard-earned allowance money on them and got them out of the library. Suddenly, library visits were exciting. I was seeing that there was a difference between reading what I wanted and having to read for school.
Still, the reading for school didn’t sit well with me. As I progressed through junior high and had to do summer reading, I remember groaning over it. I had a whole summer to read a lousy book, which seemed plenty of time. As you can well imagine, I put off most of the reading until the last minute. Reading Jurassic Park during the same summer when the movie was out was kind of neat, however, because I felt like I was reading something current. Perhaps part of my dislike of reading stemmed from the fact that most of the stuff we were forced to read in school was historical. I remember how deeply it struck me when reading Jurassic Park that there was a time before humans walked the earth and there would be time after. At 13, such a thought was beyond my world. It got me thinking. It was also the first time I heard about DNA.
Once I was in high school, I read the assigned books and did well in English class, although it was never my favorite subject. I was writing poetry since I was 10 or 11 and short stories, but writing for English class was a different matter. By this time, my homework load was so large that I really didn’t have time to read for pleasure. I worked part time at a movie theatre, was in marching band, did Aikido, and, of course, had a full course load at school.
My tenth grade English teacher didn’t like that I thought outside of the proverbial box on the test on symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. I barely managed to pass that test. Looking back, being forced to conform, to read what only was assigned, to write the answers that we’d been lectured on were the “right answers”….well, I didn’t like that. Only my eleventh grade teacher (a laid-back guy who seemed like an older hippie and more like a college prof with the messy office, beard, and just-got-outta-bed hair) seemed cool. He was unconventional. He told us it was okay to use “I” when writing our papers. We read a lot of poetry and just talked about it as a class. Our individuality was encouraged.
As strict at my twelfth grade English teacher was, she was a little spit-fire. We studied world literature that year, and it was the first time I learned about many of those cultures. My eyes were being opened to a world much larger than American and British lit. It was amazing. And she challenged us. She was the type of teacher you loved and hated and would always remember, always appreciate, always respect.
I suppose this bigger-world picture is what first got me interested in reading nonfiction, most specifically Egyptology. I spent the better part of my late teens and early twenties reading about ancient Egypt for fun.
Once in college, I was pleasantly surprised by English 101. We read current stuff. Again, much of my beef with reading in English class in high school was that everything was so old. I didn’t relate to it. Reading Tuesdays with Morrie, which had only been written two years earlier at the time, was a love-affair with a book for me at age nineteen. I breezed through the pages, finishing it way before schedule. Life and death. Living life to the fullest. Appreciating every moment. That was what I took away from that gem of a book. Current affair topics like racism and sexism and such were what we read about and discussed. This stuff felt relevant. It was like someone had opened the window after spending years in a stuffy room.
College was another time in my life where I spent much time reading textbooks, so my time to read for pleasure was limited. I’d taken more to writing fan fiction, engrossed with meeting people online who had common interests as me. I read a lot of fan fiction as well, so since I was reading in my favorite genres, it was the escape I needed at times. I got that escape from writing, too.
Fast forward a few years. I was 23 and done with college, working as a research technologist. A good friend encouraged me to pick up the Harry Potter series, of which four books were written at that time. I’d seen the movies and enjoyed them, so I thought, “Why not?”
I devoured those books, all four of them, in two weeks, which was record time for me. The fifth book was scheduled to be released that summer, and I joined thousands of others in anticipation. I. Could. Not. Wait.
So began my love of reading that I never would have imagined possible when I was seven. Even as I got older, I didn’t love reading most things. My reading for pleasure was severely limited to fan fiction, not actual books. But hey, it was something.
I couldn’t tell you all the books I’ve read since 2003 (when I was 23). According to Goodreads, it’s something like 400. Most have been fiction, but some have been nonfiction. I spent a few years diving into the classics, like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and discovering a love for the way the authors could paint a picture with their worlds and melt or stab my heart at the same time. I marvelled at the beautiful poetry of the prose of older books and came to appreciate them deeply, relating to the characters in a way I never imagined when I was younger.
Then I read Jane Eyre in 2006 and loved it so much, I mourned the fact that Charlotte Bronte had been dead for a hundred and fifty years. She felt so alive through her words. It was like her breath was on every page. I longed to discuss her masterpiece with her, what I felt was her heart’s song. That was the first time I’d felt that passionately about a book. Those dead authors we’d studied in school suddenly seemed very much alive.
And so I have continued on this love affair with books. Reading matters as deeply to me as writing now, and it’s thanks to those books I mentioned above (and some great teachers and friends who encouraged my reading) that I love to read. I am constantly reading something, usually many books simultaneously.
Reading matters because we can lose ourselves for a few hours to another world. We can be Frodo on a quest to destroy The Ring or Harry Potter in search of the Horcruxes.
Reading matters because it makes me a better writer. Even if you’re not a writer, you can appreciate the art of a well-crafted book.
Reading matters because of stories. Story is the essence of life. People have shared stories since language existed, long before the written word. We want to explore the human condition in all its forms, its beautiful messiness.
And guess what? I’ve recently reread some of the books I “had to read” in school: The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Twenty years later, my perspective is different. I can see those characters through the lense of a mature woman instead of a child. I also revisited Jane Eyre and felt just as much in love as the first time.
Reading matters because those books are like old friends, always there to comfort us and bring us home. That’s quite something coming from a little girl who hated reading
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