Learning to Read

I must admit that I am a sucker for stories about how people learned to read and write. They’re always interesting, funny, and sweet. I have gone through Cecelia’s first grade journal around twice, because I’m so fascinated by her entries. They’re hilarious, and incredibly well done for a 6-year-old. And by incredibly well done, I really do mean incredibly well done. It’s absolutely impressive. She’s got complex sentences, interesting anecdotes, beginnings, middles, and ends, and neat handwriting.

My favorite is her entry about snowy days. After describing how she would play in the snow, she wrote, “I would like nothing more than to be raped in a blanket with my feet in warm water.” We didn’t stop laughing for at least two minutes, and I was reminded again how much I absolutely adore Cecelia and all of my friends.

So I have decided to have a go at relaying my own reading story.

My first memory of truly reading was from when I was three and still lived in the City. I was staring up at the awnings above the shops, and on a blue and yellow one, I was able to decipher the word “the”. However, by the time that I got to Kindergarden, I was a less than a stellar reader. Sure, I could decipher simple sentences, but anything more complex that required real thought was beyond my attention span. My mother would sit next to me with her old “Dick and Jane” Reader, and I would practice putting my feet behind my head or do backbends off the arms of the couch, narrowly missing the coffee and end tables.

Fortunately, by the time I was in first grade, I got my act somewhat together. By October I was in the top reading group. Prior to this switch, I had taken to “stealing” short chapter books from the school library, because the batty librarian wouldn’t let me check them out. I had thought that I was so slick when I hid them under my shirt. Thankfully, my teacher pretended not to notice, and let me read them. D.E.A.R (Drop Everything And Read or, as I liked to call it, Don’t Even Attempt Reading) became the only time where you could find me sitting somewhat still and not talking. I read as much Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl as I could get my hands on before discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Harry Potter books. My parents, who are huge readers (they didn’t buy a television until the 1988 Olympics, and we have at least fifteen large bookcases in our house), were absolutely ecstatic and kept encouraging me.

Throughout my childhood, reading truly was the only thing that I could remain focused on for an extended period of time. I read 100 books in the summer of 2001, and in Middle School I read the most books out of my “House” every year (134 in 2005-2006 and 112 in 2006-2007). In the winter, I’d huddle next to the radiator and sympathetically shiver as I read The Long Winter. In the summer, I’d lie in my neighbor’s tree house and read A View From Saturday for the millionth time. In school, I’d hide books like Fast Food Nation under my desk and surupticiously read. (My fifth grade teacher was very surprised when she caught me with that book during math class.)

But learning the act and developing a love for reading are only one half of the equation. You have only truly learned to read when you know how to read critically with an eye for metaphor and can analyze a text from the different literary schools of thought. For me, this began to happen when I was 13. I had a wonderful English teacher, and with her help and my mother’s, I began to understand that a book has more than just a plot and interesting characters.

And so it went. I improved every year and continued to gobble books. Nothing really changed until I saw this vlog post in September. Here it is:

At the time, I was simultaneously in the middle of a collection of Kafka’s works (for my AP English class) and Nine Short Stories by J.D. Salinger. Suddenly, everything clicked. If you watch the video, I’m sure you’ll know why. John Green (Read his books!) couldn’t have described the importance and act of critical reading better. I also resolved to read Ulysses, but after one short story from Dubliners, I realized that Joyce’s writing style is FREAKISHLY difficult to understand. So Joyce is currently sitting on a back burner, and probably will for quite a while.

I know that my learning-to-read journey hasn’t ended yet, and I hope that it never does. There’s so much left to discover and learn about reading critically, and there always will be. And I find that incredibly encouraging.

How did you learn to read?

4 thoughts on “Learning to Read

  1. i dont remember how i learned to read but to be able to speak english i watched tons of sesame street. right now i read lots to my kids who cant get enough. loved the post :-) has reading helped you write better? i’m still trying to figure that part out

  2. Thanks so much for your comment and the complement! I also loved Sesame Street when I was little, but what little kid doesn’t? It’s almost like a rite of passage.

    Reading has absolutely helped me write better. Good books provide models of what effective writing should read like, and through trying to copy the methods that those writers use, I think that I have improved. The more I read, especially the more I read “serious” literature, the more I learn. But that’s not to say that books are the only way to improve one’s writing. Good teachers and my patient mother have certainly had a large influence, and reading things like critical essays, editorials, science journals, and the newspaper have helped teach me how to structure effective arguments and essays.

  3. One of my favorite books is “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. It’s a memoir written by Jean-Dominique Bauby. He suffered a severe stroke, and after waking up from a coma, was completely paralyzed with the exception of his left eye. To communicate, he developed a system with his speech therapist where she would ready him the alphabet (in the order of frequency), and he would blink when she got to the right one. The entire book is written by his blinking. It a joy to read because the prose is lyrical and gorgeous. Here are two of my favorite quotes:

    “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.”
    “Once I was a master at recycling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories. If it’s a restaurant, no need to book. If I do the cooking, it is always a success. The bourguignon is tender, the boeuf en gelée translucent, the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness. Depending on my mood I treat myself to a dozen snails, a plate of Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut, and a bottle of late-vintage golden Gewurztraminer, or else I savour a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter. What a banquet!”

    It’s a quick read and entirely worth it. Other than that, the other book that I would suggest is J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Short Stories”. The anthology is short, thought-provoking, and brilliant. My favorite story in it is “Teddy”, which is about a child genius, Teddy, and centers on his conversations about religion and philosophy with a young graduate student, Nicholson, on board the ship. Here is one of my favorite quotes:

    Teddy spots a can of orange peels that has just been dumped into the ocean. Several of the peels are floating by. “They float very nicely,” Teddy muses. “It’s interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn’t seen them, then I wouldn’t know they were there, and if I didn’t know they were there, I wouldn’t be able to say that they even exist.”

    I hope that this is helpful!

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