Long ago, when I was four years old, my mother was ironing and watching TV. I was sitting on the floor cutting out photos from a magazine and asking my mother to read all the words on the pages. My mother kept telling me to watch TV, but I told her that I didn’t want to watch TV; I wanted to READ!
My poor mother grew so exasperated. What was she to do with this little girl that didn’t want to watch the new black and white TV set that so transfixed our family in 1955? How was she to teach me to read?
With a sigh, my mom sat beside me on the floor and showed me some words and pronounced them. That may have been my first moment of known joy. I quickly cut out words from the magazine and pasted them under the cut out photos, making my first story. Then, I went on to read words to my mother, stunning her, but mostly she was grateful that I caught on so quickly so that she could go back to ironing and watching her program.
A year later in kindergarten, I was incapable of taking a nap, being an insomniac even then. One day, I was whisper reading a story to a little girl lying next to me on our nap rugs. The teacher, a harridan called Miss Campbell, who never should have been allowed within a 100 miles of a child, with a nasty tone in her voice, asked me what I was doing. I told her I was reading a story to the girl next to me. Miss Campbell got a cruel smirk on her face and said, “Well, little Miss Smarty Pants, you are a liar; you can’t read. Kindergartners don’t read.” I told her my mom had taught me. Miss Campbell cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West and said, “Then, you get up here right now and read to the class. That will teach you to lie.”
So, I made my way to the front of the class, picked up a book, and read it perfectly. Instead of praise, Miss Campbell began frothing at the mouth, unable to keep her dragon steam inside. She marched me to the principal’s office and called my mother. When my mom got there, Miss Campbell and the principal admonished my mother for teaching me to read. My poor mom. She said, “All I did was show her a few words, and she did the rest. She was eager to read. Nothing would stop her.” Then, the teacher and principal told her what she’d done was wrong and that the school knew best about teaching, blah, blah, blah.
Fortunately for Miss Campbell and me, I got pneumonia in both lungs and was absent the entire second semester of kindergarten. My grandma came to help care for me and read to me for hours each day, as I had to lie in a mist tent and be still. She brought me the Greek myths and adventure stories, and had me read them to her. In hindsight, those were glorious months of reading, reading, reading and talking, all day long, about what we read.
Those few months came to define for me, from then until now, what an ideal relationship consists of—fellow readers discussing books and ideas together, sharing the joy and wonder of discovery.
I have no idea why or how I learned to read so young, why it was a need, a passion. I loved stories more than anything, and I wanted to write them as well as read them. Certainly, both are still a passion to this day. I cannot imagine a day without reading, without writing, without learning something new. Reading is as necessary to me as breathing.
Books have, quite simply, saved my life. They got me through a terrible childhood, and they’ve helped me deal with my middle son’s schizophrenia and my husband’s dementia. They have been my steady friends when my human friends seemed lost to me because I could not find (or thought I couldn’t) the right words to connect until a line from a book, play, or poem showed me the way. Books have kept me from despair, kept me sane, and are a steady source of joy.
I’ve pondered the reason for my desire to own many, many books as well as my reluctance to part with them, and in the last week or two, I think I’ve finally stumbled upon the answer—somewhere in each book is, I truly believe, a bit of truth that I want, nay need, to discover.
Most of my life, I have searched for answers, particularly the answer to why we are here and what we are supposed to do with our time. I clearly remember at age ten, walking the neighborhood streets on the 4th of July and wondering about the why of it all. I came home and eagerly asked my parents, but they told me to quit asking ridiculous questions. I didn’t stop asking questions; I never have; I never will. I ask questions about anything and everything, and read far and wide, in my determination to attain answers or maybe just some wisdom. Nothing frustrates me more than not understanding why. Nothing.
My bed is surrounded by bookshelves; each room in our home has bookshelves; they are filled with poetry, drama, philosophy, politics, film, literature, myths and legends, and much, much more—thousands of volumes of treasure, some discovered, some yet to be discovered, and some to be rediscovered. And in each one a tiny piece of the answer I search for, or so I hope, which is why it physically hurts when I periodically cull my library at my children’s request because there is no more room. What if I missed a piece of the truth in a book that I donated?
So, whenever I have extra money, you guessed it, I buy more books, heedless of the lack of space, sure that one day, if I read widely and wisely, an answer, maybe the answer, will become clear to me. Until then, I shall happily keep searching, while wondering, sometimes, if the search itself might be the answer.
Kate, aka Kathleen