When I Learned To Read

the second time:

I do not remember what books she gave me, except that they were thick hardcovers. I believe one might have been a Thomas Hardy. It makes no difference. My English teacher was right, and I was wrong. Some books are better than others. And as a teen I had no way of judging for myself.

Without that bet, I would still have read serious literature when I had to, but I’m not sure how much I would have read because I chose to. Mrs. Dickey had taught me that there are things one ought to read. I put away the books of sports records and pulpy sci-fi. By the time I finished high school, I had read all of Shakespeare, the sonnets included.

When I started college, although I began as a physics major, with lots of work in math and computer science — you can’t entirely ungeek the geek — I was drawn increasingly to literature. In those days you could still find a jampacked course on Western Civilization and read the great books. (Dante haunts me still.) I devoured Greek drama, medieval philosophy, Russian absurdist stories, and the novels of Updike and Baldwin. In my spare time I prowled the stacks of the campus library, in search of authors of whom I had never heard. I was an addict whose craving could never be satisfied. I was finally in the oasis after a lifetime in the desert.

I read a lot of SF when I was a kid, but I read a lot of other things, too. You can’t be a good writer if you haven’t read a lot (I’ve always wondered where Mark Twain got access to his education).


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6 thoughts on “When I Learned To Read”

  1. Shakespeare told pulp stories for a mass audience, and he did it well.

    Julie Taymor’s movie of “Titus Andronicus” should be a double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”

  2. I started to learn to read in earnest when I wanted my mother to read me a comic book, an adaptation of Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.” My mother was busy, but she said nicely, “You know, if you learn to read you could read it yourself.” I was thirty-five at the time.

    But seriously, I am grateful to Mom for giving me the incentive to learning how to read. I’m sure I would have learned eventually, but by the time I got to first grade I was already known for my precocious reading skills, always reading at a grade level or two above the one I was in. Thanks, Mom.

  3. I read a lot of dreck as a kid too, without any particular pressure to read better — yet still managed to learn to write well enough to impress one of the most rigorous professors in my undergrad major. A lot of the dreck I read was in newspapers, which also contained columns by Buckley, Sowell, Tyrrell, and the like.

    Since then I’ve gotten older, and I’ve blogged and tweeted. It’s a wonder I can still write in coherent, complete sentenc

  4. If one really wants to encourage empathy and diminish arrogant certitude, I’d recommend the reading of military history a lot more than the reading of classic literature – with the proviso that more than a bit of classic literature is also military history.

  5. I took the Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Course in high school. At the end of it, I was able to read War and Peace in 15 minutes.

    It was about Russia…

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