My reading career took off when I got eyeglasses. I remember being asked about the numbers on the clock over the kitchen sink when we were learning to tell time in school. When I admitted that I couldn’t see the numbers at all, or the hands pointing to them, I was bundled off to the eye doctor, returning to school after the eye exam wearing sunglasses indoors and feeling like everyone in the class was staring at me. Then I showed up with my new glasses and found that there was only one other student in our first grade class who wore glasses, the “worst” boy in my class. Paul Bonville sat in the back of the room and if rumor was to be trusted he ate paste with the other “bad” boys. Now I had something in common with him. I was so embarrassed. I needed glasses so much, though, that it didn’t occur to me not to wear them, and in time, they were part of me.
I learned to read in first grade with everyone else, and rapidly found books to be a way to travel to far-away places. Our house was full, and privacy hadn’t been invented yet, but there was time to read, and a secluded corner might get me overlooked for a while. When I was supposed to take a nap in my parents’ bedroom, I slid open the headboard to get a book of Pogo cartoons. I was fascinated by the character who spoke in Gothic letters (Deacon Mushrat).
It’s possible to read outdoors, too, mystery and adventure with the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and stories set in tropical jungles. I went canoeing down the Amazon, hid behind dunes spying on pirates, and sailed on three-masted schooners.
Books became a way to cope with school, where the pace of learning was slow. With one nun to fifty-five students (no teachers aides in those days), the teachers overlooked my furtive reading ahead. After school was the same. There was homework, and a few chores, but mostly reading. I dove into searches for buried treasure, exotic landscapes with camels, and far away lands like the Middle East, China, and Japan. Our teachers assigned reports on countries or products about which I wrote a little, and spent much longer making creative covers. There was the report on “Rice” with the letters spelled out in rice grains glued onto the cover, and “Cork” with slivers of old wine corks spelling out the title.
I spent hours tracing maps of countries of the world and drawing national flags on my report covers. These were my favorite assignments, the research coming from our family’s multi-volume Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, that had no organization I ever understood, but taught me how to use an index. To cut down on squabbling at the dinner table, dad occasionally sent us to get a volume of the Book of Knowledge to settle questions of fact. Our other source was an encyclopedia series sold by the grocery store one volume per week. The maps were brightly colored, the volumes weren’t heavy, and the maps were easy to trace. I wondered about countries where there were palm trees and white sand. I’d been to Jones Beach where the water was freezing cold. A Caribbean island sounded like the most intriguing place on earth.
During the laborious signing of my first library card when I was six or seven, I worried that I couldn’t fit my name on the single line provided because Winifred was too long. For quite a while I wished my name was Ann, nice and compact, just like David and Ann in the reading primer we used at school. Launched by my library card, I learned to read in a moving vehicle, and under the blankets at night. I loved the library, and was happy to hang out there and read while mom was at the grocery store nearby or across the street at the pediatrician and the orthodontist.
The library had that special smell of old books and furniture polish. It was a comfortable place to sit, and there were books all around. Two of my all time favorite books came from the Pleasantville Library, Gone Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright, and The Invisible Island, by Dean Marshall. Both books are stories of adventures found right around the corner from where children live. I wanted to live in places like these. I didn’t realize that I was already having those adventures in the woods, camping, and at the lake.
Paula read a lot more sci-fi than I, but I got to a few of the classics. Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein is one of the all time best sci-fi books that exists. From there, I visited spaceports and space stations all over the universe.
My avid reading seems have to been well-known, as one day, a classmate who wasn’t exactly a friend, but rode the same bus, turned around in her seat and asked if it was true that I read the dictionary for fun. I hotly denied this stupid accusation. After all, the dictionary doesn’t have a very exciting plot, does it? Rosemary’s comment was pretty much my reputation from then on. I might have learned a bit sooner how to get along with people had I spent a bit less time inside books and a little more time making friends. Reading was so much easier than dealing with people that I often chose it over anything else.
One year, when we visited our grandparents in Syracuse, our big discovery was the attic, a readers treasure house. There was a door and real stairway going up to the attic, not a pull-down ladder in the roof as at our house. Once up the stairs, there were windows and all kinds of old things, boxes, fans, trunks. We were allowed to rummage a little and though in retrospect I wish I had dug around a lot more, what we took back downstairs were books. There were a lot of books my father read as a boy, and as we revisited Grandma and Grandpa, we read more of the Horatio Alger stories, the pages brown and brittle, crumbling a bit more with each visit. From that attic I got Penrod, Penrod and Sam, Tom Brown’s School Days, and other boys adventure books. Paula and I were always eager to escape boring adult conversations, and we quickly disappeared into our books.
Even in high school, when homework was done, Paula and I would sit in the big wing chairs on either side of the TV set and read. Mom was perennially exasperated with us because she’d call one or both of us to come and help her with something and get no response. We couldn’t hear her, we were reading. To this day, I have the ability to block out the sounds around me while I’m reading. Just ask my family.