Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Learning to read

A couple of weeks ago RR posted an interesting piece telling the story of how she learned to read and asked her audience to respond with their own stories. I’ve been meaning to do so ever since but have only now gotten around to it. Like her, I find those really, really early childhood memories hard to access; and like with her story, I suspect that my own parents might quibble with the following account.

I can say for certain that I was not yet fully literate by the time I arrived for the first day of Grade One (funny Canadian expression, that; Americans would say “the first grade”), but I was familiar with the alphabet and how it could form words, which in turn could form stories. While neither of my parents were or are readers, we did have story time most nights before bed and I did have my own bookshelf full of kids’ books in my baby blue boyhood bedroom.

Strangely enough, though, up until Grade One I lived under the misconception that the books on those shelves were the only books that existed in the world. Imagine my shock when I arrived at school (West Kent Elementary, class of ’87 baby!) to discover that there was an entire room in the basement full of books that I’d never even seen before. Not only that, but this magical room seemed to be solely dedicated to the storage and promotion of books, and to the engagement of my newly acquired skill, reading. Not only that, but I was allowed to borrow books from this incredible room and take them home – home, mind you! – to read at my leisure. Good lord, there had to be a catch. Surely there was a cover charge or three-drink minimum (milk tickets, naturally).

Of course, West Kent’s library provided me with my earliest independent reading experiences. My memories of that time include several books on World War Two, a biography of Elvis, a whole slew of Gordon Korman (for the male bonding) and of Judy Blume (for the dirty bits). I’m almost certain that I also filched a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens to read to myself each year on Christmas Eve after everyone else in our house had gone to bed.

But what I find really interesting is the pronounced demarcation that exists in my mind between my early reading experiences and my reading experiences once I decided to enter the arena of literature. It was in my mid teens that I came to accept that I was going to be a writer, and that discovery forever influenced the way I read books. It was then that I found myself on the long road (still not over entirely, I don’t think) of learning not how to read per se, because I already could read, obviously, but how to read like a writer – i.e. from the backstage area.

This is how I liken my experience with books now: that if the story were a play, I am no longer sitting out front with the rest of the audience, but rather watching the show unfold from the wings. I’m still seeing the same play as everyone else, but I’m also seeing all the mechanics and machinations behind the scenes that others don’t necessarily see. (While this has deepened my relationship with literature, it also makes me an often-snarky curiosity at dinner parties when the conversation turns to reading; and I’m the last person you’d ever want as a member of your book club.) I think this kind of reading is vitally important to anyone trying to write fiction. There’s a wonderful book that I discovered in the last couple of years that articulates perfectly this whole idea of reading from the backstage area: Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It has cemented the feelings I’ve held for years about reading and writing.

So while I do treasure those memories of my early reading, I guess I have to admit that I was a late bloomer (think 15 or 16) to realizing reading’s connection with the joy and possibilities of the storytelling craft.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't start reading from the wings, as it were, until a few years ago, but I find some books still pull be into the audience. It's rare, but I can totally lose track of how a book is made, how affects are being achieved--that's how I know someone is *really* good, and then I go back and reread firmly from the studious perspective, to learn how they got that way.