Letters: A Velocity of Being

by Kathy Waller

The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
Sight and Sound Reading

But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten

 

When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).

My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)

We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.

When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.

Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.

“T-h-e”

“The”

“m-a-n”

“man”

“s-a-i-d”

“said”

I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.

In second grade, I got a Little Big BookGunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big BookHuckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.

Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.

The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.

I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.

Young Adult novels didn’t exist as a genre until the late sixties, when increased federal money became available to schools, and authors found a new audience. Born too soon, I moved from children’s books into adult fare: Zane GreyThomas B. CostainCharles DickensAldous HuxleyJane AustenHarper LeeDaphne DuMaurierRafael Sabatini (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) Noticing that I read the classics, the bookmobile librarian, unasked, brought me a copy of the scandalous Madame Bovary. I was fifteen. He’s still my hero.

On the bookmobile, I rediscovered mysteries in the real thingSherlock Holmes. I cried and cried when he and Moriarty went over Reichenbach Falls. Nobody told me he would be back.

And another real thingAgatha Christie. Which led to Marjorie AllinghamNgaio MarshRobert BarnardJosephine Tey, Donna LeonKarin FossumElizabeth George, and so many others.

But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.

And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”

Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.

But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:

Author Alain de Botton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible
.

Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.

But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagiwrites about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .

Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.

And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . .  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.

Does reading fiction make better people? Research doesn’t give a definitive answer. But “at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. . . .

“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.

Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.

Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.

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*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.

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I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68. She’s published short stories and memoir and is working on a novel.

While writing this post, Kathy was watching/listening to an old TV series of Dorothy L. Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Bless Youtube and all who post on her. (Opinion: Ian Carmichael was the best Peter Wimsey by far.)