Reading in first grade consisted mainly of simple phrases like “See Dick and Jane” or “Run Spot run” from my first grade primers, read out loud to practice the newly learned words in front of my classmates and Miss Whitman. Long before my entry into school Mother introduced me to the pleasure of reading and the Dewey Decimal Number System. Listening to her voice, I absorbed the transference of the black ink into my imagination and embraced the value and joy of reading at an early age.
Regular trips to the library occurred on alternating Saturday afternoons as Mother and I traveled to downtown Evansville to exchange and select books for the next two weeks. A large stack of ten to twelve books sat between us on the car seat with their plastic sheaths protecting the book covers and the delegated Dewey Decimal numbers marking their spines. We made the thirty minute trip on those alternating Saturdays knowing some of the books were overdue, but Mother responsibly paid her penny a day fine for the mere pleasure of being able to finish a book she had started. She read every day, and most afternoons she curled up on the couch with her nose stuck in a book while we played outside. She preferred reading to the usual afternoon soap operas popular in the day, and as soon as she finished reading one book, she began another. She ceremoniously made her way through the selected stack of borrowed books every week, while I had my own stack to conquer during that two week period. My love of reading took root and I haven’t stopped since.
During one of our trips downtown Mother told me the story of not being allowed to read certain books as a child from her hometown library in Kentucky. The Grande Dame, my grandmother, was very prim and proper, so I can imagine that D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” were on the list of forbidden or scandalous books. Mother’s curiosity apparently got the better of her and she solved this dilemma with creative rebellion. She bragged to this library sidekick that she merely found a book, which was larger in size than the forbidden text, and surreptitiously kept the smaller book hidden inside its spine. She read the books of her choice without fear of being caught or exiled from her beloved library. She touted that she read every book in that small library and I believed her. I was witness to all the books she brought home from that much larger library in Evansville, so the conquering of forbidden books in Kentucky seemed quite likely to have occurred.
Mother particularly enjoyed mysteries and crime novels, so once I was stung by the desire to read as a child, I followed in her footsteps reading the Nancy Drew mysteries series. And like her, I read anything I could get my hands on. Nancy Drew was accompanied by the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden and many others. The characters described on the pages of the children’s novels became slices of adventure, mystery and friendship in my own world of make-believe and fantasy. As I searched for my own nook or cranny in which to read, I escaped the routine life of the Midwest in the fifties and traveled to adventures yet to be experienced.
The rest of the neighborhood kids played ball, built tree houses, ran through the forbidden cornfields behind our house and searched high and low for just the right branch for a sword or fishing pole. I patiently waited for construction on the tree house to end, and then retreated to the solace of the swaying trees where I separated from the rest of the kids and escaped to my beloved books.
Wrapped up in the lives of my favorite characters, I pretended to track down the thief in Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series, and ended up reading and owning each of her novellas. I rode horse back with Trixie Belden through her neighborhood adventures, and I helped the Hardy boys capture the criminal. I learned about the special bond that the twins Bert and Nan, and Flossie and Freddie shared, and accompanied them on their exploits. As the years passed, I graduated to more sophisticated and classic reading while the fascination with the written word grew and the adventures it created never left me. The treasured escapades of the characters brought special moments to my childhood, and I continue to honor the value of the written word and the precision with which pen strikes paper creating a new or different reality.
Thank you Mother and Carolyn Keene. You inspired me forward to enjoy authors of all times and most genres. Sorry Stephen King-I don’t read the macabre. I read classics graced by the brilliant words of Jane Austin, Ernest Hemingway, or Edith Wharton. I read contemporary authors such as Thomas Wolfe, John Updike and Margaret Atwood who make me contemplate life differently, and make me wonder at both the genius, complexity and at times, the stupidity of humans. I enjoy the authors who provide insight into both successful and failed relationships, and I never underestimate the role that the much-needed mindless distraction and laughter in print plays in life. We need you Sophie Kinsella, Jennifer Weiner and Janet Evanovich. And where would we be today without the poignancy and humor of Nora Ephron. Her skill and talent at laying out the perfect word at the perfect time was absolute. And Harper Lee, to you, I applaud the eloquence with which you described the lives of the notable characters of the small Alabama town where prejudice and conscience collided in my favorite of books “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Rediscover the Dewey Decimal Number System or fire up a Kindle. Listen to an audio book filling your mind with visions of action, suspense, love, and the cornucopia of human emotions. Honor ink to paper, keystroke to screen, abbreviations to text, and word to heart in the power of the written word; a story, a tale, a life, a mystery-no two versions exact. Just read.
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
– Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)