It was a bright sunny morning in 1987 when I sat beside the chunky wooden shelf next to the couch and looked at the colourful array of books. I chose a heavy board book with a yellow cover and a story about the Care Bears. I laid on the floor and began to read aloud to myself. I always read aloud whenever I had a book. I couldn’t understand how the adults in my family read silently. It seemed like something verging on witchcraft – keeping all those words inside their heads somehow. I turned the page and was confronted by the word “between.” I scrunched up my face in concentration as I worked hard to pronounce the word. I struggled and struggled and finally decided that the word was pronounced “bet-win.” I had no idea what that word meant but I had read it. I was four and this is my earliest memory of reading on my own.
More than anything I wish I could claim to have had a strong love of reading from an early age. I wish I had been one of those kids who always had their face in a book; the type who lived in a fantasy world borrowed from the pages of her favourite story. The truth is I read but I was never a Reader. I had books that I loved but I was not a voracious reader. I was, however, a voracious collector of books.
I used to love going to the county library with my mother. I would explore the rows and rows of shelves in the children’s section admiring the beautiful cover designs. I loved the way the books smelled and the crackling sound of the clear plastic book covers. I used to max out my library card every two weeks and would proudly carry my haul home. I did try to read the books I borrowed and occasionally I even succeeded. The looming due dates would echo around my head and I used to get quite anxious about finishing them in time. The result was that I didn’t tend to try. Still, I would go to the library every two weeks and borrow still more books.
I loved books or rather the idea of books when I was in school. Whenever the colourful Scholastic book order forms would come around, I eagerly marked off dozens of titles I wanted. When they arrived a few weeks later, it was just like Christmas. I was so excited to get them home and put them on my shelves. It was the same story at the annual book fairs at school – I would grab so many books that I could barely carry them all home. I would rearrange my shelves and make even more room for my growing collection of books. Just like the library books, few of them were ever read.
There were books that I loved and would read over and over again but the majority of books that I bought remained on my shelves collecting dust. The amount of energy reading took for me was astronomical and so I never really felt like reading. I did enjoy writing and making up stories. I had a very rich imagination and I would try to recreate my imaginings in the real world with my soft toys, cardboard boxes, construction paper, or anything I could find. When I did read, I enjoyed it immensely but it wasn’t the first activity that came to mind.
One thing I have realised over the years is that I am a slow reader. To this day I take quite a while when I read. Just like my four-year old self I still pronounce each word though I finally discovered the magic of silent reading somewhere around age six. I also reconstruct everything in the book within my imagination. It’s almost as it I am watching a film of the book in my head as I read. It takes lots of time to do all of this but I don’t know how else to read.
When I reached high school any iota of love for reading I had was summarily quashed. Being such a slow reader meant that I was often buried under reading assignments – assignments I simply couldn’t complete on a nightly basis. I can now confess that I completed very few of the reading I was assigned in high school. It wasn’t for lack of trying but when you take so long to read anything, it’s a bit discouraging when you simply can’t get through and you see yourself fall further and further behind. I managed to make it through mainly by relying on SparkNotes and paying close attention to class discussions. I learned in high school more so than from anywhere else that I wasn’t nor would I ever be a Reader. And I wasn’t for years afterward.
It has only been in the last five or six years that I have begun to really enjoy reading again. I’m still quite a slow reader but I relish the process of reading now. I don’t feel hemmed in by due dates and assignments – I have room to read. I have room to explore the incredible worlds that books open for me. And it feels great. I love meeting new characters and living through them; living as them. I love finding the sweet spot in the book where all of a sudden, you’re falling through the story more than reading it. It’s that moment where the book has grabbed me and it won’t let me go until I reach the end.
After years of wishing I could be a Reader, I have begun to feel like a Reader. I still buy more books than I can hope to read in a reasonable amount of time and I still love arranging them on my shelves. I no longer feel constricted by reading the way I did when I was in high school – reading frees me. I am finally a Reader.
Featured image by Mark Ramsay.