Gail’s eyes glinted, “Let’s read!”
Read?! Like a book? As a break-the-rules-and-stay-up-all-night activity?
She handed me a Nancy Drew mystery, “The Secret in the Old Attic.” Gail had already developed a taste for murder and mayhem. She devoured mysteries like Halloween candy. She ignored me as she read.
I didn’t read, except when I had to. As a third grader, some reading was expected and I did what was necessary to secure “A” grades. I’ve always been an overachiever. Reading was like, well, work. Why would you read on your own, just for the fun of it? Now, stories were different. My mom reading aloud to me was nice. And the pictures were entertaining. But this was different.
I opened “The Secret in the Old Attic” and stared at an endless sea of letters. Then, I pretended to read. I turned pages like an Evelyn Wood graduate, not focusing on a single word. Gail looked up once and commented on how fast I was reading. I took that as a compliment and flipped through the book even faster.
“Finished!” I boasted. Gail smiled and shook her head. I was sure she was impressed with how swiftly and efficiently I had handled that book. Gail — too caught up in her web of intrigue — turned another page.
Clueless: I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea what the attraction was.
Then I fell in love.
It was a few weeks later. I hadn’t felt well so I got to stay home from school. Which was great! For about a half hour. Then mom announced I was not going to watch TV all day, no ma’am. She was off to do errands and promised to bring back a new book. “Great,” I groaned, accepting that announcement like a hard labor sentence.
Mom returned with “Mary Poppins” by P.L. Travers. With an interminable afternoon ahead of me, I opened the book and started to read.
Now, the Mary Poppins I met in this book was not at all like Disney’s sugar-coated version. She was snippy and unaffectionate and would never, ever admit she had been floating around the ceiling at a tea party when you confronted her about it the next day. She was wonderful. I was transported to the Bank’s nursery, and took off with the children to Hyde Park. I couldn’t wait for the next chapter, the next adventure. That evening at dinner, I was speaking with a British accent. From that day, until the very last page, I spent every possible moment reading that book. Then, like a junkie, all I wanted was more.
The greatest lesson I ever learned? I learned to love to read.
My life has books for milestones.
When I was 13, I discovered “The Hobbit” and graduated to “The Lord of the Rings.” I can still picture the details of that world, forged by my mind as I read the invented words. I got turned on the tales of Arthur and Camelot. I fell under Merlin’s spell. I still believe in magic and fairies and the power of suggestion.
I read the “Diary of Anne Frank.” Suddenly my world expanded beyond my immediate reality, beyond the fantasy of Arthurian lore and hobbits and trolls, to the tragedy of the human condition. When I was 21 years old I landed in Amsterdam, and visited Anne Frank’s hiding place. She was so real to me, I could hear her words as I stepped behind the bookcase. I could hear the soldiers, too. No history book could have taught me what Anne did.
Leon Uris introduced me to Connor Larkin, and I understood why, in spite of the futility of doing so, Ireland’s Catholics and the Protestants still fight each other.
I learned our country has its own sad tales to tell. I read “Sounder,” “The Color Purple” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
I followed the Joads across the country, in search of the promised land, in “The Grapes of Wrath.” For the first time, I was awed by the writing itself. John Steinbeck’s words absolutely stunned me. How could his sentences sound that effortless, that simple and convey so much meaning?
I fell in love with writing. Not so much the act of writing, but writing as an art form. I will never be a great writer. It’s just not in me. But I am unsurpassed in my appreciation of a well-crafted phrase.
The Best Teachers: And then there’s the non-fiction list! Books are the best teachers. Offering, not shoving, information. Just presenting it. I can take it or leave it. That puts the responsibility to learn on me, where it belongs.
From books, I’ve learned meaningless trivia, useful skills and the most poignant truths.
I have struggled through Socrates, Plato and Marcus Aurelius. I devoured Camus, Kafka and Dostoyevsky. L. Ron Hubbard, Deepak Chopra and lots of Biblical scribes taught me there is more to life than this life. Something I had always suspected. From books I am learning a lot about how to live.
My ability to read gives me absolute certainty that, armed with a dictionary and the proper book, I could learn to do anything.
Now, I am helping Max, my son, learn to love to read. He isn’t a full-fledged addict yet. But until one of us is dead and gone, I will read to him. And listen to him read to me.
I remember the first book Max got hooked on. It was “Donald Duck and the Magic Mailbox.” He was 3 years old and he made me read it to him every night for six months straight.
One glorious day, it dawned on me that Max was reading “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam I am,” not just parroting the words. I couldn’t speak. My heart had swelled and filled my throat.
Max doesn’t yet choose independent reading over Monday Night Nitro Wrestling, but he has had some great experiences. Have you ever read the “Hank the Cowdog” stories to your kid? They are laugh-out-loud funny and you can do all sorts of voices for the animal characters.
And for the first time, Max read a novel all by himself, from cover to cover. It was called “Under the Blood Red Sun” by Graham Salisbury. It told of a young Japanese-American boy whose father and grandfather were held in a prisoners’ camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was appalled and ashamed, as I was when I read Anne Frank. And I saw concern and compassion in his 12-year-old eyes.
For the love of words I am what I am, Sam I am.
And to reward you for reading my column, let me tell you who will be Super Bowl Champs this year — the Minnesota Vikings. Yep, this is their year. First a wrestle mania guv’na and now the NFL Championship. They will defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 28-13. Count on it. Denver who?
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