Reading is more than a hobby for me. It is an addiction. I read at train crossings and long traffic lights. I read to go to sleep, and sometimes while I am blow-drying my hair. I read acclaimed memoirs and trashy beach novels, best sellers and quirky sleepers. I read cereal boxes and instruction sheets. And I have read my car owner’s manual from cover to cover.
I can clearly remember when I had my first taste. It was the dawning of the 1960s. I was about four and my older cousins were already established school kids. They went to Lutheran Elementary School and were picked up by a Volkswagen micro-bus every morning. More than anything, I wanted to go to school.
And so we would play school when they got home. Kathy would be the teacher and sometimes Gary, the principal. Kathy had old copies of the entire pre-primer series of Tip, Tip and Mitten, etc. She had even somehow managed to get her hands on a discarded spiral-bound, teachers edition of The Big Show, which was the follow up to the Tip and Mitten series.
While Kathy was a kind and motivating, six-year old teacher, her older brother was not so patient. It seemed his role was to grade my tests and threaten “licks” with his mom’s paddle-shaped, wooden cutting board should I fail. I never got a “lick” but looking back, this may be why I have a touch of test-taking anxiety nearly fifty years later.
But I digress. I loved the scruffy dog, Tip, in the book. And his friend, Mitten, the cat. And their people, Jack and Janet. And their friends, Penny and Tommy and Willie. And most of all, I loved the power of reading.
And I wanted more. By the time I was in first grade, I was reading chapter books. My aunt was the librarian at the city library, and I checked out every one of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children books multiple times. Do you remember The Boxcar Children?
Okay. I have to go off in a tangent here. I just Wikipedia’ed The Boxcar Children to be sure my memory served me correctly and yes, (Warning: Spoiler Alert) the storyline has a family of orphan kids who run away rather than move in with their grandfather who, though they have never met, they believe might be terribly mean. They live in an abandoned boxcar and furnish their abode with broken dishes from a nearby dump. They take in a stray dog, who was abused by a wealthy woman. The oldest brother takes on odd jobs for food for the family. And somewhere along the way, they finally meet up with the rich grandfather who is not a bad guy after all, and they move in with him, but not before he moves the boxcar into his backyard. The series continues with the siblings living with Grandpa and solving mysteries. (Since they were evidently so good at solving the mystery of the mean but wealthy grandpa).
Anyway, those early sips led to more and more as my habit grew stronger. My childhood best friend, Kate, and I fell in love with a comprehensive reading program in elementary school called SRA, I think. And I have no idea what those initials stand for. But we could come in to the room early before school or finish our work and get to pull a reading card from a box. We would read about dolphins or Ireland or percussion instruments or hundreds of other topics. And then we could take a test and prove that we understood what we’d read. We’d “self-grade” our tests and check that card off on our chart, and move to the next one. They were categorized by grade levels, and I think Kate and I were reading at grade level 13 in the third grade. I loved SRA.
The school library was almost as fabulous as the public library. We read periodicals and memorized the Dewey Decimal System, which I continue to greatly prefer over the Library of Congress classification. We didn’t have magazines at home, aside from the occasional grocery store splurge of a Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal, but my Aunt Robbie was a member of the National Geographic Society (one did not subscribe -but had to be a member of this elite organization). She saved their monthly magazines like precious thin golden encyclopedia in rows and rows in glass fronted oak bookshelves.
The library had Life and Time and Reader’s Digest and Boy’s Life. The doctor’s office had Highlights for Children. Does anyone remember “Goofus and Galant?” My first paid subscription was to My Weekly Reader.
I remember the first time the written word moved me to tears. I was about ten and the book was Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With the Circus – and it was the part about the chimp, Mr. Stubbs. I won’t spoil it for you. But it was really sad.
Grandpa Hinkle gave me a Webster’s Dictionary for Christmas one year when I was about nine. It was heaven. A giant, hardbound book of words. I kept that big book under my pillow and would read it in bed at night. After lights out, I would read it under the covers. My mother just shook her head and rolled her eyes and pretended not to notice the flashlight glow coming from under my door.
Today, I am grateful for my cousins and all the reading teachers who came after them. I am thankful to come from a family of readers, who allowed me to escape into a book and curl up in a corner and read from start to finish. I savor the scent of a new book, and like to hold it in my hand and look at the cover and read the flaps and the introduction and dedication. I appreciate fine paper and readable fonts.
I love computers, but miss real card catalogs – with little oak drawers filled with index cards with carefully typed descriptions of each book and Mr. Dewey’s secret code number pointing to its rightful place on the shelf.
My literary heroes include Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb and Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, and all who can bring characters to life and lead me to wonder “what happened next,” long after reading the last page.
And I am okay with this addiction. I have admitted it. But I don’t want to quit. I have a stack of books next to my bed, and a book in the car, in case I get stopped by a train or tied up in traffic. Something in my handbag to read if I arrive at the restaurant early, and a stack of “need to reads” on the coffee table.
Today, a half-century after we met, I hope Tip and Mitten and Jack and Janet have lived long and happy lives. I hope Harper Lee found happiness in her privacy. And Melvil Dewey got the credit he deserved. And Pat Conroy is working on a new book.
Here’s to hardcover books with smooth dust jackets. And epic paperbacks that swell up on beach vacations with salt water and sand. And My Weekly Reader. And readable fonts.
For now, I don’t need an iPad or a Kindle. But please don’t take away my library card.
Hello. My name is Diana. I am a reader…
Listening to: Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”