Reading, writing and a magic carpet ride

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.

Hidden jewels
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.

Bookitis
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.

6 Comments

  1. Judy

    Loved, loved, loved this! I connected with your words so much! Every child should read these words, so they, too, might be enticed into other worlds!

    • amandauhl

      And you worked at a library, too:)

      • Judy

        Yes! It was so exciting to be the first to see and handle a brand new book straight from the publisher!

        • amandauhl

          Love that new book smell:) There are so many nice libraries in Cleveland. The Euclid/Lyndhurst branch just opened a new center for writers. I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet but it’s supposed to be really nice.

  2. Debi

    Your wonderful post took me back to my youth when my Mother worked for some family friends who owned a bookstore. Mom introduced me to Nancy Drew and instantly I was hooked on every word. She’d plead with me to read more slowly instead of hours. Today it takes me longer to read Mary Higgins Clark, David Baldacci or David Silva. Early in my career in Ohio I took the bus and quickly filled the to and from ride with Readers Digest Condensed Books. Oh how I loved being introduced to Robin Cook, Dick Francis and writers of espionage, intrigue and mystery. Usually four books in one, I devoured them quickly and was anxious for the next one to arrive in the mail, much like your anticipation of the book mobile. And like you, I traveled, to faraway places and time, solved the 100-year old mystery, fell in love with a spy and yearned for the sequel. Those bus rides never seemed long enough! Thanks for the memories.

    • amandauhl

      Reading is truly a magical escape. And it also helps with Words with Friends, right:)

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