I haven’t always been a voracious reader. I grew into one in second grade when our teacher, Ms. Conlon, pulled out a giant plastic box filled with books and corresponding exercises and invited us to join a reading competition. “You will work at your own pace,” she said. “As soon as you finish one book, you may move on to the next. Finish the entire box and then come and see me for a surprise.”
Having been born into an extraordinarily large family, I knew how to compete. I had learned at an early age to be quick. If I didn’t, my chances of getting seconds or even dessert were questionable.
There was one problem. I struggled to read. But the competition and the promised surprise upped the ante considerably. I wanted to win. I wanted to be the first to earn the prize.
As the competition heated, it didn’t take me long to realize that the boys in my class were hares, and I was the tortoise. They were half way through the box before I even made it through the first couple of books. (I still think they cheated.) At the pace I was going, I would never get to the end of the box of books.
And in fact, I never did.
But I did gain a treasure that far surpassed the promised reward. I became a reader. A brand new world filled with covered wagons and cityscapes, ballrooms and caves, opened up before my wondering eyes. I read constantly, in the early morning hours before school started and late at night in front of the fire we kept going in the kitchen for heat in our old house. I carried copies of books into the strawberry patch and would reward myself with a chapter every time I picked a quart of strawberries. I didn’t cry when my older brother knocked my tooth out accidentally in a pretend fight. But I did cry bucketfuls when I reached the end of my favorite series and realized I would never meet the characters again.
In school, I went from third, to second, to first reading group and by seventh grade had advanced into the literature group for kids reading far above their grade level.
I purchased brown paper bags filled with hundreds of books from the annual library sale for a quarter and read each one. There were plenty of books lying around the house, too. On our family bookshelves I discovered The Exorcist and Black Beauty. I read The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey and every Nancy Drew mystery. I read my dad’s old speech books from college. I read A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Every couple of weeks I walked to the book mobile that rolled through town and checked out the maximum they would allow–fifteen books. The driver got to know my interests and would stock the shelves with plenty to choose from. When I came back each time, I had read all fifteen books and enthusiastically checked out fifteen more. I never missed a book mobile visit.
I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I once hid a book in my desk at my first big job and read it in between taking calls from salesmen. And I also pretended to shelve books in the library stacks, where I worked as a reference page, while I perused nearly every old issue of Life magazine. Working at a library was deadly for a book addict like me.
Oddly enough, I was told by well-meaning adults that my love of reading wasn’t healthy. I read so much, I wasn’t living life, I guess. But for me, reading was life. It was larger than life.
How else could I ever meet the Prince of England or travel into ancient Egypt if not through the pages of a book? How could I experience summer camp (something I never got to do) or hang-gliding (yep, I read a whole book about that), if not through reading?
These days, I spend much more time writing books than reading them. In fact, I might say that writing has “ruined” books for me. Rather than immersing myself in the story, I find myself critiquing the author’s writing style or questioning the believability of the plot. I get frustrated and instead of reading, wind up watching old episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix. (Love that show.)
And then by chance, I pick up a well-written book, like my recent find, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, and I’m hooked. Before I know it, I am hanging on every written word. And when I reach the end, I sigh, because for that space of time, I have forgotten the dirty dishes in the sink, the mountains of laundry to be washed and the bathrooms that need cleaned. I’m just a quick-witted, young lady, dumped by my boyfriend, who overhears him make a bet about her and decides she’ll play along. Magic.