Claudia Myers column: Ingrained with the freedom to read
It was Pearl Buck’s “The Keys to the Kingdom” that got me into hot water with the staid librarian, who pursed up her lips and took it away from me, saying I was much too young to be reading trashy novels.
Do you love the heft of a hardcover book, so you can flip the pages back and forth, reading the good parts again? Or maybe the user-friendliness of a soft-cover paperback appeals, where you can jot down your notes or turn over page corners without fear of disciplinary action from the literary police?
Do you read with a Kindle? Does it have a Kindle Skin decal stuck on the back, announcing your personality to all? And do you go into distress mode when you can’t find it? Or forget to charge it? Yeah — all of the above. Me, too.
My mother actually taught me to read. You see, I attended kindergarten in Johnson City, New York, where “half-day” consisted of playing in the indoor sandbox, having juice, listening to the teacher reading and naptime with your blankie. But no learning to read. My mom or dad read to me every night, but they were “big people.” Of course, they knew what the books said.
In September of that year, we moved to our new house in Vestal, New York, and I started first grade with Miss Kenyon. Not my biggest fan. She thought I was just a brat because I refused to read when she called on me. I started having “stomach aches” to keep from going to school. Sobbing at the bus stop every morning.
So, Miss Kenyon summoned my mother to come in for a little talk and between the two of them, they figured out what was wrong: The children in my Vestal class had learned to read the year before, in kindergarten. That when she called on me, I actually didn’t know how to do what she was asking. And I spent the day being terrified that she was going to call on me.
On the way home, my mother picked up a set of flashcards at the local drugstore and every night, we would drill. The other kids in my class had learned to read by rote (memorization technique using repetition) — the new-fangled way. I learned phonetics and could always spell my way out of a paper bag because of it. Thanks, Mom.
My husband will proudly tell you that he learned to read with comic books. Tom’s favorites were Plastic Man and Scrooge McDuck, an unlikely pair. All those Captain Marvel, Captain America and Flyboy adventures paved the way to a reading habit that now favors Somerset Maugham and Ngaio Marsh. We have a standing family joke that if you mention any random subject at all, Tom will immediately jump to his feet and go to his library to find a book about it. We all look at each other, nodding our head: “He’s got a book about it.” Yep, he even has a T-shirt that says so, right on the front.
Between ages 8 and 12, I spent my entire summers reading. There was a sizable weeping willow tree in our front yard, and I would hide under its branches, my back up against the trunk, and read. I had my own card at our small library about a mile from my house and once a week, I would take my stack of devoured books and walk down the road to swap for new ones, working my way down the aisles from fiction, to mysteries, to adventure and fairytales, reading everything from Nancy Drew to Pearl Buck.
It was Pearl Buck’s “The Keys to the Kingdom” that got me into hot water with the staid librarian, who pursed up her lips and took it away from me, saying I was much too young to be reading trashy novels. I, of course, whined to my mom, who went storming down to the library, all in a flap, me right behind her: “My daughter has our permission to read anything in this whole building. Don’t ever tell her she can’t!” And she snatched the Pearl Buck off the counter and slammed out. Way to go, Mom!
Nowadays, I enjoy trying to figure out “whodunit” and mostly read murder mysteries: British cozies and brash young woman private eyes, historical romantic intrigue, humorous bumbling detectives hiding their savvies beneath the put-on act. I am sad when a series comes to an end and delighted when I find a new writer with an impressive number of titles to read. I have noticed as I age, I no longer feel guilty about sitting down and reading a book in the middle of the afternoon. Or staying up all night to finish a compelling story. Or turning up the text size on my Kindle to “humongous” until I can see it.
Truthfully, I identify with Mrs. Pollifax, the 60-some grandmotherly lady in the flowered hat, who is actually a CIA agent, getting herself in and out of all sorts of terrifying scrapes. If I were 60 again, I’d get a big hat and apply to the agency myself. But I’m not, and never will be again, and for my part I am so grateful that Amazon always warns me that “you purchased this book in August of 2013” because I don’t always remember.
So much for the “attention to detail and steel trap memory” that CIA agents are supposed to have. At least I don’t remember until I’m on page 47 and things start to sound familiar: “Oh, drat! I’ve read this one before!”
Next time: Our “House on the Rock,” the prairie rambler.
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.