What makes a reader?
I was always a reader, but when I look back at my earliest reading, the hunger to escape into the book was balanced out by the message in the books given me, or the grim setting. I had little access to books, so pretty much had to take what I could get and an awful lot of what people saw fit to put into the hands of kids in the early fifties was Lesson stories.
For my seventh birthday I was given Black Beauty, which I did enjoy, though I was full of questions about aspects of Victorian life that no one could answer, and they got impatient with me for being a pest.
I was also given an exquisitely illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, which I dutifully read, but I remember sitting there in my room deciding I’d only make myself read one story a day. And the next day, if nothing better had come along to read I’d brace myself for the next depressing story in which little girls never had happy endings.
Of course I had to read them all. The book was there, and nothing else was at hand once I’d worked through Black Beauty a couple of times. The only reward I felt for plowing dutifully through Andersen was the luminous illustrations.
A year or so later, our babysitter brought over Enid Blyton’s Castle of Adventure. That surprised me, as she was a typical teen of that period—squealed over Fabian, begged her mother for lipstick and starched petticoats, talked about rock’n’roll and boys. Spelled her name Judi, with a big heart over the ‘i’. She was most definitely not a reader. But here was this book!
The story was everything I wanted: kids with no parents, girls getting to adventure as much as boys, no drippy patriotic or moral message in that inimical fifties way of “do what I say, but if you do what I do you’ll be in trouble,” and funny stuff as well as action.
The bad guys got defeated, satisfying my thirst for justice (see above about “do as I say”) What joy! What bliss!
In later years, I figured that this had to have been a tactical move. We were horrible brats. A year or so later (I started babysitting really young) I began to realize belatedly just how horrible we were. And being the eldest, I was the ringleader, the sneakiest and worst.
Tactic or happenstance, Judi’s ruse worked like gangbusters—one down, leaving the easier seven and four year old to conquer.
I smacked into that book, crouched on the very edge of my bed like an owl. Why I didn’t just relax on the bed I don’t know, but ever afterward I would perch on the edge of my bed, toes hung over the mattress, chin grinding into my bony knees, when I read…I suspect my rotten eyesight was kicking in around then, and I had to get the pages closer to my face.
There was no keeping me out of the library, once I found out where it was.
There are a lot of fascinating books on the subject of why people read. Here are a couple that spoke to me.
One is by Mark Turner, who incidentally is the model for Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series—he’s a professor of cognitive science, and has written The Literary Mind: the Origin of Thought and Language.
In it, he maintains that fables and story telling are not peripheral, but basic to human thought.
There is also the charming, fascinating work by Brian Boyd, who maintains in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction that art derives out of play, and encourages sharpening of the mind as well as cooperation. His book illustrates how enduring artists arrive at what he calls cognitive universals, the intrinsic magic that appeals to so many of us not only at one time, but across generations.
I think one of the main reasons why we enjoy fiction is because it permits us to exercise, or play with, our cognitive adaptability without real life stakes, risks, or obligation.
That’s not to overlook sheer enjoyment, curiosity, and imagination. And for many of us, as Tolkien says, escape, consolation, and eucatastrophe.
But the fact is, we humans are all about story.
We are surrounded by story, whether it’s in the form of the “news” or ads (the fastest and most effective forms of fiction ever invented) and even sports events.
The game might be metaphor for story, but fans follow the ups and downs in the lives of the sports stars with every bit as much intensity as they are involved with their own family and friends.
As for what makes a reader, the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that the impulse is either there or not, from the gitgo. Readers read often because they can’t help it; when idle, they read signs and cereal boxes. I was traveling with a very sophisticated reader not long ago, who read out loud every ad sign we passed though everyone else in the car had no problems reading.
I know I read everything with words from an early age—I’m told I began reading before I was two. I do remember struggling with mastering the spelling and grammatical stew that is English, to the impatience of the adults around me, and I was definitely reading by the time I went off to kindergarten.
I read everything—I ever began making my own books out of paper towels when I was six—but the intense pleasure in reading happened as I described above.
Most of us who have that whatever-it-is became readers at an early age, but I’ve met people who through various circumstances didn’t meet with books, or the right books, until later, and after that there was no turning back.
If you’re an inveterate reader, can you remember the first book that made you passionate?