My mother called me a bookworm. She was rather proud of her knowledge of this idiom in a foreign language. She was oblivious to the “lack of social life” aspect that this word implied. She was not wrong. I was usually reading at the dining table, in the bathtub and under the covers. Not resourceful enough to commandeer a flashlight, I read by the dim, green light of a three-inch plastic “glow in the dark” statuette of the Virgin Mary. If my Mom had known, she would have bawled me out when I had to get glasses in fifth grade. And I didn’t have friends.
Now, heading into my 8th decade of life, I marvel at the intense relationship I have had, and continue to have, with books, stories, anything written. I have lived in so many families: the Marches, Atticus, Jem and Scout, the Joads, the Brunettis of Venice. I have been the smart girl who wins in the end: Lizzie Bennet, Lisbeth Salander and Daenerys. I’ve have wanted to win over totally inappropriate men: James Bond, Sherlock, T.E. Lawrence.
Books were comfort for a broken heart, temporary escape when life was too hard or too boring, explanations for how our society, and little me in it, got to be where we are, explorations of human endeavor throughout our history and instruction on what to do and how to be.
Am I a co-dependent? Wasn’t everyone in the ‘80s? I was first tickled, then in profound agreement when Daniel Goleman mentioned asking the Dalai Lama for marriage advice for his about-to-be married daughter. The answer was, “Low expectations.” So opposite our Western, Protestant, striving culture, yet so right. Every time I had a major romantic breakup, I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to get out of myself. I read Han Su-yin and Adeline Yen Mah’s memoirs, Chinese women doctors like my mom and me.
I do not think that my situation and my feelings are unique. I am hoping that lots of people whose personal universes include the characters, situations, ideas and emotions found in books will become my readers. What is unusual is that I can pinpoint just exactly when in my life all this started. The following essay, “The Third Reading Group,” explains.
The Third Reading Group
“The third reading group stays,” Miss Meyer ordered, as the rest of the class jostled noisily out the door at the clang of the recess bell. Richard, with his gravity-defying blond thatch, Sharon of the sharp elbows, sweetly-dimpled Sylvia and I, an earnest girl with my “watermelon seed” (oval) Chinese face and black hair pulled back in braids, milled dispiritedly around our teacher.
Resigned to the whims of adults, the four of us third-graders at St. Joan of Arc Parish School, situated among the “scrubby Dutch” of South St. Louis, scooted metal and wood desks toward the front. “Open This is Our Town to page 42,” Miss Meyer instructed. We obeyed the skinny, bespectacled young woman who flashed overcrowded lower teeth when she talked. Her short brown hair sat in a tight perm. I was fascinated by the long downy hairs that lay flat along the outside of her arm near the elbow.
When my turn came to read aloud, I stared hard at each word. There were some easy ones, like “the” and “of” and “tree” and “road.” I had them memorized. I had tried to memorize every word from the previous lesson, but there were just too many. I stumbled, beginning “kitten” with “kay” for the initial letter, and then, “tee,” and then “ten” because I knew the number ten. “Kay-tee-TEN,” I said haltingly.
“KIT-ten,” Miss Meyer corrected. “KIT-ten,” I echoed. But the next unfamiliar word came out just as garbled. The process eluded me. Even words that I thought I’d memorized didn’t pan out. I had trouble separating words like “tried” and “tired” and “dairy” and “diary.” They looked so similar but sounded so different.
Struggling through my paragraph was excruciating, and that was just to get the pronunciation. I couldn’t be worried about deciphering the meaning. To my great despair, I didn’t see how it would go any better the next time.
The other kids soldiered on with equally horrible results. After all, that was why we were in the third reading group. I don’t know if they were dyslexic, ADHD, malnourished as infants or any of the sociological or medical terms we now throw around. In 1955, we slow readers were just grouped together. I’m sure Miss Meyer, who would have preferred a cup of tea or a cigarette during recess rather than drilling the “dumb” kids, had had no training in teaching remedial reading. Now I appreciate her efforts, even though her idea that we re-read aloud what we had botched reading during class wasn’t exactly inspired.
My particular reading problem could be traced to my family’s arrival to St. Louis from Hong Kong three months prior to the start of third grade. Just my bad luck to immigrate at the exact age that schools start to teach reading! My younger sister coasted in the first grade, and even taught me the meaning of “teacher’s pet.”
All I knew to do at school was to draw on my previous experiences in Hong Kong. I memorized English words because the only way to learn written Chinese is to memorize each character. Even though the character, the written word, is the same all over China, each of the hundreds of dialects in China pronounces that written character differently. For example, the character 好 , meaning “good,” is pronounced how in Mandarin, haw in Shanghai, huh in Taiwanese and hoe in Cantonese. Each word is also assigned a tone, and the number and nature of the tones differ with each dialect. If you pronounce how (Mandarin) with a “rising” tone, say, instead of the “down and up” tone, you’ve said a different word entirely – oyster, written 蚝.
Nothing about the Chinese character tells you how it’s pronounced. You just have to know. To be able to read a newspaper, you have to have memorized in the neighborhood of 5000 characters. I think that I knew several hundred Chinese characters at the time I came to America. I turned my rote memorization efforts to English.
Miss Meyer seemed as limited in her teaching approach as I was in my learning approach. Reading out loud, or even being read to while following the text, are good ways to learn…assuming you have a command of the spoken language. This reality struck home when my son was learning to read. All he had to do was to sound out the word because he was already conversant in English.
In addition to my untenable notion of memorizing everything, my efforts were hampered by the only English I had learned in Hong Kong—the alphabet. No one ever explained phonics to me! It was many weeks, maybe months, before I put together for myself that when a word started with a letter, say, “B”, one doesn’t pronounce the name of the word “bee.” I kept trying to pronounce words I didn’t know by saying the letters’ names rather than their sounds. It was mental pandemonium. As near as I can reconstruct, “dragon” came out like “de-ar-gee-un.”
Another source of puzzlement was the seemingly random accentuation of the syllables within a word. In Chinese, one character corresponds to one sound. That’s it. My pronunciation of longer English words, like “pronunciation,” was haphazardly, and often erroneously, accented. Thank goodness it was years later that I became aware of such words as “object” and “produce” that are either verbs or nouns depending on the accent.
Getting D’s in reading-dependent courses, History, Geography, and of course, Reading, quarter after quarter, even into the fourth grade, was crushing. Despite handing in blank pages when I didn’t understand Miss Meyer’s instructions except for her firm “Hands down” when she tired of students’ questions, I managed to get good grades in Arithmetic, Spelling (all memorization!), and Religion, having made my First Communion when I was five. But I could see the writing, even if I couldn’t read it, on the wall. Reading was the key to mastery of much more than just English. Day in, day out, I fought to make sense of each word, each line, each paragraph. I would stare at the page until I fell asleep.
While studying one gloomy winter’s day in the fourth grade, my eyes slipped their narrow focus and took in a whole line. And it made sense! Holding my head still, I shifted my gaze to encompass the entire line of words beneath the one I had just read. I held my breath, but it was not a fluke. I understood that sentence too. My heart was pounding so fast that I could barely sit. But sit I did because I wanted to keep reading. I wanted to know the rest of the interesting story. I didn’t want to lose this newfound knack, the way a 3-D picture can so quickly morph back into just panels of pattern. I barely slept that night fearing I’d wake up in the morning and be my old self again.
But the next day and the next and forever after, I could read English. Maybe I had missed the forest for the trees by focusing word by word. I’m sure my seemingly pointless efforts throughout the year were important in some way, like a three-year old who never spoke until he burst forth in complete sentences, but the connection was not direct. When I studied Buddhism in college and came to the term satori, a word often translated as “instant enlightenment,” I immediately flashed back to the glorious moment I learned to read.
I cannot exaggerate the impact that that one event –making sense of words—has had on my life. Like the world switching from “black and white” to color when Dorothy opened the farmhouse door after landing in Oz. Or, like the scales falling from St. Paul’s eyes after he had been blinded on the road to Damascus.
My favorite analogy is from a book I read with my son when he was small: “Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum.” Grover, the blue-furred Sesame Street puppet (no, not the Cookie Monster who is also furry and blue but much fatter), enters the “Everything in the Whole Wide World” museum. After going through the “Carrot Room,” where a lone carrot sits on a pedestal, and the “All the Vegetables in the Whole Wide World Besides Carrots Room,” he goes on to a dozen other rooms. The rooms are labeled with equally arbitrary classifications: the Small Hall (a freckle, a thumbtack, an eyelash, a grain of sand –you get the idea), the Tall Hall (a tree, a phone pole, a giraffe, and so on), the Long Thin Things You Can Write With Room, the halls of Very, Very Light Things and Very, Very Heavy Things, and the Things That Make You Fall Hall (roller skate, banana peels, ice, soap, an out-stretched foot).
After scouting out all the rooms, Grover realizes that he still hasn’t seen everything in the whole, wide world. Then he spots a huge, double-doored gate with a giant gold sign above it, reading, “EVERYTHING ELSE.”
The final page of the book shows Grover, arms raised in salute, joyfully running out that huge door to the outside. He greets the sun, which is throwing off giant rays. He heads towards a town with buildings. In the distance, mountains poke their snow-capped peaks above a blue lake. Lush bushes dotted with flowers border Grover’s path. Here was the “everything else.”
Finding the secret to reading, which opened the door to everything ever written, held that same sort of exhilaration for me. Like Grover, I found marvels at every turn. At first, it was the great relief of finally being able to pull more than D’s in my history, geography and religion classes. But that was just the beginning of my exploration of other people’s thoughts, my connecting with other people’s feelings, my bedazzlement by other people’s imaginations and my discovery of their humanity. I had fallen in love – with reading, with books.
Tell me: When did you fall in love with books?