Monday, January 3, 2011

A History of Reading

You may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worthwhile to be tormented for two or three years of one's life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. – Jane Austen
1. I come home from kindergarten in a quivery state of awe. "Michael Pearce can read!" I announce. "He read a whole book for Show and Tell!" My eyes fill with tears of bitterest envy: all I can do is look at pictures while I wait to be read to. Like a baby.
My grandfather says he will teach me to read. After dinner, he sits with me at the kitchen counter and begins sounding out words. “C-A-T, cat,” he says, writing it out. “R-A-T, rat.”  Now it is my turn: B-A-T, he writes. "What does that say?"
I have no idea. Cat, rat.... “Catches,” I guess.  No. Chases? No. Hits on head with giant rubber mallet?
Thirty minutes later, I am thoroughly sick of learning to read. Also, I have not learned to read. Also, my grandfather is not a patient teacher. I am in tears.
But he persists, night after night at the kitchen counter, and eventually, I can read.  The best day of the week is library day. The best days of the school year are when Mrs. Smith, the district librarian, comes to our class to tell us about the new books in our library. Sometimes she has to bore us to death with the Dewey Decimal System first, but she never leaves without reading. She is the best reader I have ever heard, changing her voice and accent and pitch as she shifts from character to character.
I read all the time.  I read when I am supposed to be cleaning my room. I read when my grandparents say I should be outside playing (in the four days of summer that befall Northern Ontario).  I read before school, after school, and during school, especially during math class. Thus, to this day, I can read like a wizard but can barely add.
In my early adolescence, I read indiscriminately. I finish The Shining and pick up Jane Eyre. I read all the Bourne books and then Heart of Darkness.  Wuthering Heights is sandwiched between two Harlequin romances.  
My father gives me a box of books for Christmas: Dickens, Orwell, Austen, but also, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I open it up to find that language as I know it has been dismantled and reconstructed on every page. Are people allowed to write like this? It is the most wondrous thing I have ever read.
I no longer want to read the Bourne books. I can’t fully explain it. Something is missing in the language.  
I tell my grandparents I want to study English in university. My grandfather wants to know what kind of job this will lead to. Oh lots of jobs, I say and recite a list (journalist, editor, copywriter, teacher) but the truth is, I’m not going to university in order to get a job. I’m going so that I can leave home, first of all, but also, to read. For the next four years, my primary responsibility, my job, will be to read.
Best. Job. Ever.

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