By Curt Collier
“Look.” That was the first word I was ever taught to read. I was over 7½ years old when I first started school, and had never been taught to read before starting first grade. My 12-year-old sister had taught me the alphabet and numbers in “play school,” but that was the extent of my introduction to reading before first grade. My teacher, ironically a young woman named “Miss Read,” (her actual name I suspect now was Reed, but she played up the “Read” part), brought out a large book, about 3 foot tall, and placed it on an easel. The high point of the “look-say” reading era, the word “Look” was emblazoned on the cover, and we were taught that this particular configuration of letters meant to, well, look. I was mesmerized.
Within a relatively short period of time, I was outpacing my fellow students in my reading abilities. Our teacher had a bunch of cut-out figures representing each of us placed on a depiction of a Yellow Brick Road that spanned to Oz and spanned the classroom chalk-board. Each time we read a book, we moved closer to the Emerald City, and I was way ahead of nearly everyone. There was a girl, can’t remember her name, who was always one book ahead of me. I hated her.
The challenge I faced was despite the fact that I love to read books, my parents didn’t really buy me any. I think they somehow thought a book was a poor gift. They actually read themselves, especially my mother, but come the holidays or my birthday, I was more apt to get an Etch-a-Sketch or Hot Wheels car than a book. This “tradition” exists to this day…despite the fact that I do admire gifts of books (although now I lack the room).
What a treat to be able to borrow books
When I discovered that my school had a place called a library where you could check out books, I found that fantastic. Unfortunately, you couldn’t check out a book until you were in the third grade. When that time finally arrived, I checked out a kid-friendly version of “Swiss Family Robinson.” It was heaven!! What a treat to be able to borrow books and bring them home. A few days later, however, I discovered that my dog had chewed all four corners of the book. I was horrified and kept it a secret. When the school librarian demanded that the book be returned, I stood with shame and showed her the damaged book. She called my mom. Mom showed up and paid some exorbitant price (I think $2.50) for the damage. The librarian said the book was mine, and for years I kept that book, reliving the guilt again and again. Needless to say, I stopped borrowing books.
My passion for reading didn’t return until high school. Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, sat in a cornfield, and students were bused in from all over the county (an hour ride for me). It was a small school (only 98 students in my entire grade), but was newly built and had a library. In those days, school was from 8 am to 4:45 pm (unheard of in the East, but common in Texas), and we had a whole 45 minutes of free time, which I spent in the library. A voracious reader, I absorbed many of the books that drew my attention, and my attention was wide and diverse. I was living in a small, rural town (pop. 1,821), and books were the only way to see the world, and I was starving for that. I remember reading Emerson, Thoreau, B.F. Skinner (“Walden II,” which turned out to be nothing like Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”), Harper Lee, Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life,” and so on.
A massive cathedral of a library
In college, despite pursuing a Philosophy liberal arts degree with massive amounts of reading, I often wasted hours at Texas A&M’s massive cathedral of a library. I spent hours just walking up and down the rows of books. My evenings were spent working at a Waldenbooks, a chain that sold mostly popular junk, but did have a lit section. Knowing I’d eventually be required to read the classics, I spent my evenings behind the cash register reading, well, everything, while listening to Muzak. Luckily it was a pretty slow store.
Things haven’t really changed. As is my usual way, I’m reading about five books right now, and none are nonfiction anymore (alas). I have so little time to read books, I spend what time I have reading sections in several books as it suits my fancy, but as you can imagine, it is a slow process to complete any one book. I don’t mind; it feels like I’m engaged in some form of conversation with people interested in divergent topics. Challenging, cacophonous, and lovely.
Books are once again under assault
I feel about books exactly the same way I did in first grade. “Look” is what the book said, and so I did, and my world has never been the same. It’s cliché, but books for some of us are indeed portals to other possible worlds, to new insights, to adventure. But books are also once again under assault by people who fear their power. Thought-provoking books are being banned by conservative school boards nationwide, and book burnings have once again dotted Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, etc. (I am trying to find evidence if those places ever stopped burning and banning books…I’ll keep you posted).
In the meantime, as Joseph Brodsky wrote, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” This essayist and poet was imprisoned in a mental institution, exited to a gulag, and eventually kicked out of the Soviet Union for his own writings, and knew well the sickness of censorship. In response to American censorship and right-wing hysteria, the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County is having a Festival of the Banned and Forgotten Book. Gather with us on March 20, and collectively let’s read, feel, and celebrate the power of words.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.