I’ve always felt that there are some books I love so much that I keep coming back to them despite the knowledge that there are so many more books out there I need to experience. This is even more poignant when you’ve entered the fourth quarter and the clock is ticking down. Before the buzzer sounds, there is so much more literature I want to explore.
But I can’t leave some of those already read books alone, you know? I don’t want to abandon them. I got a lotta memory issues as is these days, and I don’t want to forget the books that have meant so much to me. They’re like old friends, and I want to keep those friendships alive.
I had a favorite professor who would read Moby-Dick once a year. Why? Because, as he said, this was his white whale, an addicting obsession like a monkey he would not shake off his back even if he could. He had hated Melville’s masterpiece when he’d been forced to read it as a high-school student. Now he read it to remind himself, like an annual lash of the whip, what a foolish boy he’d been for ever doubting the book’s magnificence. Each time he read it, he affirmed, he took something different away from it. This, he said, was the sign of a great work of literature.
Every year I read The Great Gatsby. At this point, I can’t say that I take away from it something new each time I read it, although that does happen. No, I read Gatsby to remind myself constantly that you can’t repeat the past, that dreams do not always come true, and to continue to chase them as they recede is futile. This is how I cheer myself up once per annum.
My mom read to us from a very early age. Even if I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I could see that my mom loved Dickens or Shakespeare, or whoever it might be, so I was caught up in the words – she was an excellent reader – meaningless as those words might be for my being too young to understand them. She treated us as sophisticated readers, challenging us to stretch our minds, our imaginations, and our vocabulary.
My maternal grandmother, she and my maternal grandfather having moved from Chicago to live with us, read to me too. I would sit in the bathtub, she on the toilet, and I’d hear Black Beauty and all of the Hardy Boys’ mysteries.
I loved the sound of words, whether I understood them or not. This much I know is true. But when it came to doing my own reading, I was a bit more selective. By the time 3rd-Grade rolled around, I had developed a little mental library of the kinds of book I preferred to read on my own. I would often revisit old friends like Dick and Jane, reliving with renewed appreciation their various adventures, along with those of the mischievous Cat in the Hat and Horton, Dr. Seuss being a favorite author of mine.
Miss Reed – no pun intended, that is her real name – had been my 2nd-Grade teacher, and now she was my teacher again in 3rd-Grade. In both grades, because we were big boys and girls now, we spent 30 minutes a day reading silently. We would choose books from the well-stocked shelves of our classroom. The books ranged from simple to fairly complex, and as guinea pigs at this experimental school, we were left alone to choose whatever books we felt suited us.
Me, I loved Dick and Jane in 3rd-Grade the same as I did in 2nd-Grade. They were like friends, as were all of the Dr. Seuss characters.
One part of this reading half-hour that was different now in 3rd-Grade, was that we’d be called to the front of the room to sit with Miss Reed so she could listen to us read aloud quietly to her, the reverse of the model I knew from home, where the adult read to the child.
I had no qualms about this role reversal, however, and that I had a chance to perform some of my favorite works for dear Miss Read was something to which I looked forward very much. When my first go-round came, I proceeded to her desk, took a seat, and began to whisper to her the adventures of Dick and Jane. Granted, I was not the best reader I’d ever heard, but I was doing my level best. Perhaps I was more nervous than I thought. I stumbled far more than I imagined I would, given my thorough familiarity with the story, and the embarrassment I felt reading aloud for possibly the first time in my life made matters only worse.
Most people would read for five minutes and then return to their desks. My five minutes seemed to be stretching out a long, long way.
Finally Miss Reed said, “Lanny, do you like planes?”
“Oh yes,” I answered brightly, having just come back from our family odyssey on the continental U.S. “I love planes.”
“Good,” said Miss Read, taking a book from the shelf behind her and handing it to me. “Here’s a book about planes. Can you try reading it to me?”
This was no problem; I aimed to please.
I looked at chapter one. I don’t remember the opening sentence, but I think it took me a hour to read through it. There were some big words there that I’d probably heard before, but that I’d never seen printed on the page. I struggled to get through a paragraph. Miss Reed helped me sound out words, and, sure enough, I had heard most of them. But this was excruciatingly hard work.
Finally Miss Read said, “Lanny, I noticed last year, and I see again this year, that you like to choose books that are easy to read. I want you to start challenging yourself to read books that might not be so easy. I want you to start with this book.”
She sent me back to my desk. I’d been up there most of the 30 minutes, and reading time was over. I wasn’t embarrassed by being told to try harder reading. I was worried.
My worry did not decrease as every day now, Miss Reed would have me up to read for her, and not for five minutes. Sometimes I’d struggle along for ten minutes, sometimes even more. My worry turned into a kind of fear. Was there something wrong with me? None of my classmates were getting this extra-special attention.
My Old English professor at the University of Wisconsin had us reading Beowulf. I loved the story already from my undergraduate days, but to translate large chunks of it on top of the heavy enough reading I was doing for my other courses did not give me much time to pause and reflect on the pleasures of the poetry. I mean I was struggling.
One day he and I found ourselves walking down Bascom Hill to Memorial Union together. We were talking about Old English, but then we weren’t. I’m not sure how we segued into it, but at one point he said, “I got a notice from my son’s school that he doesn’t know how to read. Can you imagine that? He’s fourteen years old, and just now they’re telling me he can’t read. You’d think they could have figured that out sooner, don’t you?”
I can’t remember anything we talked about after that. All I could think about was that this was a professor of English who did not know that his son, a fourteen-year-old boy, could not read. An English professor not knowing this for all those years. Mind-blowing.
What I found out at the beginning of my 3rd-Grade year was not that I didn’t know how to read, but that I was reading at well below grade level. Did my parents know this? Well, if they didn’t know it before, they definitely knew it now.
Miss Reed had my parents come in for a special meeting. She explained my struggles to them. My mother mentioned that she read to me all the time, that my grandmother did too.
Miss Reed said this was wonderful for me, thus allaying some of my mom’s high anxiety, and then she assured my parents that mine was not an insurmountable problem. She proposed that in addition to the time she spent with me during quiet reading, I should stay after school so she could work with me more. My parents were thrilled with this idea, even if I was not, and this is how my afternoons became happy extensions of the school day, Monday through Thursday.
I read. And I read. I struggled and I struggled. Day after day after week after month, and then, one fine day, toward the end of the school year, Miss Reed called another conference.
Oh my God, I thought, is this going to be bad? It felt almost as awful as a trip to the dentist. I did not want this to be painful. Was I a lost cause?
“Well,” said Miss Reed, “I’m happy to say that Lanny can now read at grade level.”
Wow. Were my folks happy. Me too. My mom, the English teacher, would never have to find out when I was 14-years-old that I couldn’t read.
I am a slow reader. I read word by word. Sometimes I say words aloud to help with my concentration and to push myself long, so as not to overfocus on a word, dwell on it and bog down. I cannot read in chunks, and I cannot scan.
After I became an English major at the University of Hawai‘i, I took an Evelyn Wood reading method course in the hopes that I could improve my reading rate. I give anyone who ever received benefit from that course great credit. My guess would be that most of the people taking it might have been sitting more on my side of the boat, people who had struggled all their lives with reading. Like me, I believe, they probably benefitted little, if at all.
I had to laugh when Saturday Night Live, hosted by Ray Charles that week, did a sketch where Charles talked about the Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Method. He said that he used to get blisters on his fingers from racing over his Braille books, but now, thanks to the Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Method, he never had to worry about that problem anymore.
I may be a slower reader, but I make up for it in dedication. Because I know the reading will take me longer, I gladly start earlier and stay later. One night I read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw aloud from start to finish in a single sitting. It was slow going, it took all night, but I absorbed the story like a sponge. Reading aloud is a blessing for people like me, and recorded books can be a real help.
Bless Miss Reed. I think she’d be so pleased to know that I earned a Ph.D. in English. If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure how life would have gone for me, whether I’d even have found my way into an English major, into loving literature at all.
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Happy #WriterMonday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I would love to see what you wrote : )