Reading without a net







In a post a while back, a friend talked about the intensity of a childhood read.

I could relate to that. The post caused me to recollect my first encounter with Enid Blyton, when I was eight or nine.

My sibs and I were horrible brats, a babysitter’s worst nightmare. In a clever strategic move our babysitter once brought  Castle of Adventure. That was it for me. I disappeared into my room for the rest of the evening so she only had my sister and brother to contend with.

The world faded away within the first few pages of that book. Library books back then were bound with this mono-colored plastic-filmed cardboard is the only way I can describe it. The paper inside was cheap, and after many kid hands had impatiently handled the pages, the edges would get very soft, delicate as tissue. You’d find the catty-corner fold where someone else had dogeared. The smell of a library book . . . I can catch it in some of my older used books, a compound of aged paper and mustiness and the faintest hint of print that was powerful magic, so full of promise.

Who else loved the smell of libraries?

By the time I reached ten, I had a Reading Posture: crouching on the very end of my bed, my toes hanging over, gripped hard to the mattress, like a vulture perched on a branch. My chin on my knees, my book tucked in against my shins. I suppose my sight was already beginning to blur, without me being aware. But having my legs pressed tight against my middle helped me contain the anxiety churning my stomach that the suspense inspired.

There was no willing suspension of disbelief when I was a kid reader. I was either here or there, in the story. I believed everything the text told me was true, and I had no ability yet to predict patterns. Everything was new. I had no defense against the intensity of emotion, which burned in memory that peculiar sensory awareness that others talk about: smells, the           quality of light, what one might have been doing around the time the story was experienced.

As a child reader, I found every tiny detail of equal importance. I got so angry if illustrations did not match the text that I  shuddered past Evaline Ness’s graceful impressionistic pictures, and refused to read any book illustrated by folk art-inspired Lois Lenski, whose girls seemed to grow their legs out of their waists, and whose profiles were all exactly alike.

Words were as important as drawings, not how they sounded so much as what they meant: how they contributed to filling in the details of the imagery. I had figured out by the time I was six that I could get about three “What’s this word?”s out of any adult in any reading session, after which they’d chase me away impatiently with “Sound it out.”

Sometimes one could sound out a word, but English can lead one sadly astray, between the French influence that made ghosts of consonants and vowels alike—hors d’oeuvres did not ‘sound out’ to orderv—and the Greek vowel hiccoughs (epitome turned out not to be EEP-eye-toam, but eh-PIT-oh-me).

Toughest of all were definitions. We didn’t have a dictionary at home, though we did have a World Book encyclopedia set. But it was only good for looking up some things. Adults, even when benign, did not prove to be walking dictionaries, as I discovered the weekend I turned seven, when I buried myself in Black Beauty. “What does eep-eye-tome’ mean?” netted the expected puzzled look, and “run along and play.’ I did have a good memory for puzzle words, so eventually some of them popped into meaning if the context matched up: “missled” turned out to be “miss-LED”–oh! led astray!

I fretted over the words that nobody ever seemed to use in spoken language. ‘Humbug’ nagged at me for a very long time, causing me to go over and over that text with forensic intensity in an effort to tease out meaning from context.

Books could be dangerous, they could lure you into believing you would reach the last page smiling, just to annihilate you utterly. Especially animal stories. The time of the book might only be weeks, but seldom did any beloved pet make it to the last page, leaving you weeping for the justice that animals rarely got. “Stop blubbering, it’s only a book.”

I knew kids who gave up reading after Old Yeller, but the siren lure of the library was too strong for me. I learned to be on the watch for certain kinds of story situations, or descriptors. Poignant signaled “Watch out, this one is going to hurt.”



Reading without a net — 39 Comments

  1. Pingback: Reading without a net « Reports from Castle Chaos

  2. Yes, the physical sensations of reading a book can be very important — the smell of pages and ink, the weight of the tome in hand, etc.

    It’s interesting that you should mention it, because just yesterday I was talking with a clerk at a store about books and reading, and how our bookselling business had shrunk since the economic downturn. He asked if some of the shift might be the growth of e-readers, and I said probably, and that there’d come a time when physical books would become a niche market for collectors and connosseurs, people who wanted to have the book as a treasure, and those who enjoyed the sensation of book in hand while reading.

    • Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that trend, too. E-readers are so handy, now that the screens offer so many choices, and there is no storage problem. Yet I look around at my walls of books and would never wish them away, horrible as it is when I have to move!

    • I still think, dealing with a baby, that children’s books will always include a major subset of physical books, even if Fisher Price does its usual magic at producing a child-friendly reader. There are ways the manual dexterity needed to flip pages is simpler than that to figure out most reader interfaces.

      Similarly, some art books depend on the physical book in similar if more sophisticated ways to pop-up books (I can also see room for new styles of art books on e-readers, and even for “Look, we don’t lose the middle of the picture to the spine” advantages, but that oen does go both ways)

      But I can imagine a world where physical books have that kind of niche market, either for children or special purposes.

  3. Calling me for diner did not always work.

    Waving your hand between me and the page did not always work.

    Sometimes you had to interpose your hand between me and the page and leave it there to rouse me.

  4. That we persisted in the habit speaks to the intensity of the experience and the deep pleasure when it rewarded us. My peers mocked me as “book worm”, and my mother hated my reading. She used to ask what was wrong with me. I’m guessing other folks my age got the same response.
    I remember the fear and pain caused by endings that were unhappy or unjust, and even now as an adult have to avoid those stories.

    • Oh yes. Agreeing here. One thing about being over sixty is that I feel that fiction has nothing more to teach me about unhappiness or injustice or human suffering, so there is no obligation to read it. There’s plenty of it left in the real world.

  5. Just chiming in actually with the comment of yours, Sherwood, that’s immediately above the comment box as I write this–namely, that I no longer feel an obligation to read this or that thing. I’m aware that my time is limited, and so with anything I choose to read, I have a good reason (in my own mind, anyway!)

    Regarding plunging into a book, the best treat for me was always when I’d get to dream about the story I’d been reading. When that happened, it was really like being granted that magic pass to go to the place (it *was* being granted that magic pass).

  6. I was a total bookworm starting age four, when the great aunt that was supposed to be minding me while doing housework decided it was easier to teach me the alphabet.

    One great difference: I’m Italian! learning to read for us is SO easy, each letter is a sound and conversely, with very few exceptions. It was even easier when I was a child and we still taught kids our version of the alphabet, with only 21 letters (J, K, X, Y, W were missing, in case you’re curious). As far as I know, English is by far the hardest (i.e., most irregular) to read of the European languages.

  7. The moment of finally finding out the true location of the Second Foundation is forever linked with the memory of a pimplefaced geeky boy named Andreas who had a crush on me and had the audacity to interrupt me just at the crucial moment that the location was revealed to ask me what I was reading.

    Meanwhile, my memories of reading Enid Blyton for the first time are linked to the pattern of the carpet on the floor of the living room of my parents’ friends, from whose daughter I got the book, traded in against the award winning book about drug addicted teens that some well meaning adults had given me (and which I foisted onto the other girl with the words “It’s about drugs and stuff and really depressing. You’ll love it.”)

    My memories of reading one of the Pucki books (pre-WWII German YA by one Magda Trott) are connected with sitting crosslegged on the fluffy white shag rug that my parents used to have (and that I was not supposed to sit upon), while my Mom is on the phone with my grandma, who is obviously upset about something. When my Mom gets off the phone, she tells me that one of my second cousins in East Germany (whom I’d never met at the time) had tried to escape to West Germany and got caught. I look up briefly and said, “Oh crap. Is she dead?” (because even at the age of 11 I knew that trying to escape East Germany usually got you shot). “No, she’s not dead”, my Mom said, “She was arrested before she ever got to the border.” I said, “Good. They’ll exchange her against some spy who got caught then” (which is exactly what did happen. She got free as part of some kind of prisoner exchange about a year or two later) and promptly went back to my book.

    • That sounds like the reason I never like to interrupt people when they’re reading. (Aside from people I know really well.) I always feel like it would be a great way to meet random people — if they’re reading in public they obviously like books. But then I remember that if I were interrupted I would generally feel annoyed at the interruption rather than happy to chat to a random person.

      • You can tell non-readers because they see someone with a book and think they are blank, daydreaming, unoccupied, and ripe for chitchat. It used to drive me wild when interrupted by chitchat questions. “So, you’re reading, are you? What’s it about? I remember the last time I had to read a book . . .”

      • To be fair to the boy who interrupted me (and I only used his first name, because it’s incredibly common in Germany), he was really inept at chatting up girls. He still holds the record for the worst chat up line I ever got (not when he interrupted me while reading Second Foundation – he was simply persistent), which takes some doing. I hope he eventually got the hang of it and found someone.

  8. When I was a girl we moved to Vientiane, Laos. There were no English books there except what you bring with you. The American diplomatic community was very small, and one of the other Embassy people invited everybody over for a July 4 cookout. On a shelf in their hallway was a complete hardbound set of the Narnia books. Ignoring all the activities I started in immediately with the first one. I believe I got through three before the cookout was over, and my parents hauled me home. Our hosts very kindly allowed me to borrow the rest of the books — in retrospect I can see they must have been a gift to the children, and had gone unread until I appeared. I have never recovered from this.

    • Stuck abroad with nothing or very little in your own language to read is always an intense experience. There were times when I started to read my Mom’s paperbacks (Harold Robbins, Catherine Coulter in bodiceripper mode, Marie Louise Fischer, Uta Danella and the infamous 1980s bestseller “Lace”) because I had run out of books, while my Mom read mine. Or the battered English language SF paperback (probably one of Burroughs’ Mars novels) with the intriguing cover that I found, but couldn’t read even with the dictionary, because my language skills just weren’t good enough.

      • This is true! When I first got to Vienna, I was so culture shocked (and so depressed at how abysmally inadequate my eight years of German classes had been) that I sought books in English–thus I read Fred Astaire’s autobiography, and a couple of historical bodice rippers that I otherwise never would have touched, but which are now indelibly printed on memory. I did like Fred Astaire, though!

        • For some reason it’s always bodicerippers or very bad romances (my Mom had one about a nightclub singer that fascinated me, because nightclub singer seemed like such a cool profession) that you get stuck with in a foreign land. Though I did get lucky on occasion. For example, I found Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the bookshop of Athens airport (Athens in Greece, not Georgia) while stuck there for several hours with the air conditioning not working. And lately, I picked up what looked like a readable YA fantasy but turned out to be a great and comprehensive book in ritual magic, while stuck at Amsterdam airport.

          • I finally read Gone with the Wind because it was either that or Michener and his like, when I was facing a winter crossing from Portsmouth to Holland over heavy December seas. I remember sitting crouched on the heaving deck for hours, totally absorbed, and later, when we got to the youth hostel, I sat on the sink in the restroom, pressing the light button every three minutes until I read myself to a stopping place.

      • Being caught, however briefly, without stuff to read is an intense experience. I started writing because of a written-word deprivation for a few weeks.

  9. We had this local library about a ten minute walk away. I think I was down there at least a couple times a week. Sometimes my mother went, and we’d both come back with stacks of books. Hers were always these fat books with the unevenly cut pages. Mine weren’t quite as big — I’m not sure I could have carried them!

    But days after I returned home, I realized my book pile was vanishing. Someone was stealing my library books! I did a little detective work and discovered that the culprit was my mother. Confronted, she confessed, “I liked your books better than mine.”

  10. Ooh, I hear you about the bad-illustration rage. But then there was Tasha Tudor! Her illustrations for A Little Princess were so spot-on with my imagination that looking at those plates still chokes me up sometimes.

  11. When I was a teen we moved to Germany. We arrived on Christmas Eve. There were no English-language bookstores in Munich at the time (and in any case I had no German money), but the PX was open at the Embassy for a couple more hours. We darted in and stocked up on food, and I quickly cased the magazine and paperback racks.
    Everything was targeted towards young male soldiers (Guns & Ammo, Playboy, male military adventure novels, and so forth) but there was one papberback of interest: A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller. I bought it. Christmas fell on a Friday that year and there were no schools, libraries or stores for five or six days. I read that novel once a day for each of those days.
    That and Narnia esssentially made me the writer I am today. The other life lesson I derived: never, under any circumstances, EVER be without backup reading material. The final evolution of this is my acquisition yesterday of an Ipad, a gift from an indulgent husband. Project Gutenberg, here I come!

  12. One of the reasons I am so glad to be the child of a reader also is that she understood if I didn’t look up, or got annoyed. And she’d do the same. (She managed after a few years to teach her kids that barring genuine emergencies, her first half hour home was sacrosanct mom needs to be alone time.) Our dinner times often involved herself, my brother and I sitting and eating with books in front of us. To some “Quality time” people this sounds like blasphemy, but it meant we didn’t force conversations, we talked over dinner when we had things to talk about. (Plus we talked elsewhere and elsewhen.)