I’ve always been enchanted by beautiful libraries portrayed in books as places where characters or real-life people can retreat to read in comfort and luxury. I have also been impressed by prodigies who begin reading at age of three or four and complete works of classical literature before they reach their teens.
My own reading life and progress didn’t follow this pattern. My reading evolved in a manner more common during the mid-twentieth century, in the middle-class small-town America. Most of us didn’t enjoy a rarified upbringing with the luxury of a home library and a special “early reading” gene. We managed to become readers anyway.
I’m going to share the seeds of my early reading life, in the hopes that you will find something familiar and comforting there and to confirm that a love of reading doesn’t necessarily call for extraordinary circumstances, money, or luck. It’s more a matter of a few seeds planted and cultivated at the right time. The more seeds planted, the greater the chance of success, even in modern America.
Seed #1 – Middle-Class Values, Mid-Century America
My parents didn’t set out to grow readers. Like most young couples following World War II, they were interested in building a family and a secure future for their children. Theirs were middle class values, inherited from those who farmed the land and worked at trades, who valued education and hard work. Family, church and community life were the institutions we knew and respected. Everything else sprang from these institutions.
Seed #2 – Reading Parents
My parents enjoyed reading, but never referred to themselves or each other as “readers”. They both read magazines and newspapers, Readers Digest condensed books, and paperback mysteries. They didn’t read great literature, but that didn’t matter. You might find an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery in the living room, the latest issue of the Memphis Press-Scimitar or the Daily Dunklin Democrat in my dad’s office, and a copy of The Saturday Evening Post or American Heritage magazine spread open at the kitchen table. Reading was an integral part of their lives and became so in my own because of the example they set.
Seed #3 – Being “Ready to Read”
What I remember about first grade (aside from the instances when one of my classmates crossed the line and felt the sting of a reprimand from Miss Carroll) were endless exercises in basic arithmetic and practice in writing the alphabet. What I most looked forward to was learning to read. Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot didn’t introduce me to the excitement of story or the discovery of new information in my six-year-old world-view. The important thing to me was that I would be learning a skill that my parents practiced and that brought them pleasure.
Seed #4 – Beyond Reading Skill to Reading Pleasure
Miss Carroll, Mrs. Gunn, Mrs. Goddard and Mr. Wilson had different teaching styles, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but they all introduced the students at West School to the “what comes after” in learning the skill of reading. Learning to ride a bike is cause for celebration, but the ability to stretch our boundaries and go beyond our own neighborhoods is life-changing.
My teachers understood this and skillfully taught us lessons in history, science and social studies by using stories to captivate us. We also learned about the world through our Weekly Reader and were encouraged read books outside the classroom.
As I progressed through school, I was blessed with many teachers who sparked a greater interest in exploring through reading. For example, Mrs. Williams took us to her native Australia by sharing stories, songs, and history of her country. I felt especially honored when she invited me to become a pen pal to her niece, Beth, and enjoyed reading about her life in Australia.
The year I spent in Mrs. Pelts junior English class introduced me to facets of literature that have stayed with me until today. The Norton’s Anthology was an appetizer, but reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone was a “main course” where I learned about mystery, suspense and story construction. It was here that I experienced my first “cliff-hanger” and read my first “page-turner”.
Seed #5 – Reading Materials at Home
My own collection of books was mostly limited to Nancy Drew mysteries, since we had no bookstore in my hometown. These and the Hardy Boys mysteries were available at the Blakemore Drug Store and were a favorite birthday gift for my friends and me.
While still in early elementary school, my brothers and I were fortunate to receive several boxes of discarded school books from a school near the family farm. It was closing its doors and the books were destined for the trash. It was great fun to set up a library in our family room and to explore what the books had to offer and I could pretend that it was a public library like the one downtown.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents had personal reading preferences and I remember dipping into Reader’s Digest condensed books and the Saturday Evening Post by the time I reached junior high. I read The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar in the condensed version and remember the heartbreaking story told in Angel Unaware by Dale Evans.
We also had a set of the Compton’s Encyclopedia and the “H” volume was my favorite because of the article about hobbies, which turned into a catalog of interests that I might pursue. I also studied the article on housing, which featured photographs of families who lived in poverty in New York City, as compared to those who lived in new, modern homes. This brought me to an awakened appreciation of how fortunate I was.
Seed #6 – Library: Favorite Destination
The library was safe and exciting at the same time; it was my amusement park and shopping adventure combined. It still is.
I don’t remember exactly when I started using the library. I don’t remember story times, summer reading programs, or events especially for readers of my age. What I do remember was probably the greatest pleasure I had ever known – going to a place with rows and rows of books, checking out as many as I could carry, and then hours of pleasure on rainy days, hot summer days, cold winter days, days when everything was wonderful, and days when nothing was wonderful except the story or book I was reading.
I remember fairy tales and books for girls like myself who wanted to find out how to be more like myself or somebody else. I remember books about people in other times and places. I remember the freedom to choose my books and the trust in me that I would choose well. The library was safe and exciting at the same time; it was my amusement park and shopping adventure combined. It still is.
Seed #7 – A Joiner and a “Dabbler”
I believe that the term “bookworm” was inaccurate in describing someone like me. Our culture has often equated a love of reading with a solitary, lonely existence and “bookworms” have been pitied and scorned. My experience was that reading drew me out into the world and that participation in the available activities in my community often had a reading component that broadened my horizons even more.
My early life could be catalogued by the organizations I joined during my school years and the reading opportunities they presented. From Girl Scouts, to our local chapter of the Federated Junior Music Clubs, to Sunday school, Sunbeams and GA’s at church, to extra-curricular groups such as the debate team and National Forensic League, French Club, Art Club, Pep Club, yearbook staff, Future Homemakers of America and others – all involved some measure of reading to participate fully.
I was a Brownie and then a Girl Scout and my manuals were treasured possessions, rather like the “H” volume of our Compton’s Encyclopedia with its article on hobbies. I reflected on the descriptions of badges and used them as I would a catalog, making my choices depending upon my current interests. Of course, the “Magic Carpet” and “Reader” badges were my first choices, followed by the “Storyteller” and “Writer” badges.
There was another badge, the “Dabbler” which encouraged those interested in the arts to venture into a variety of media and experiences before settling into one. This was a practice I continued in my approach to life; an extension of the interest in a variety of hobbies. That curiosity, combined with my love of reading, led me down many paths and permitted me to move from one interest to another without a premature concern with “finding my passion” and sticking with it.
Seed #8 – Plenty of Free Time and Minimal “Screen Time”
Our parents’ friends often helped “curate” our television and movie fare, but no parent had to deal with devices that offered children round-the-clock entertainment with few restrictions on content.
I do admire those whose talent is recognized early and who are diligent and devoted to the many hours required to develop their gift. That was not my experience and I now understand the value of that time after school, on weekends and during the summer left unoccupied by scheduled lessons, practices, and performances.
Since television was in its infancy, “minimal screen time” simply meant that we watched programming for children and families on the three networks available to us from Memphis. Children’s programs like The Howdy Doody Show and The Mickey Mouse Club were presented after school. Sometimes we were allowed to watch I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best in the evening, but doing our homework and getting ready for our early bedtime took priority, with a few treasured minutes for reading before lights out.
As we moved into the teen years, Top Ten Dance Party and American Bandstand demanded our attention, as did movies with young stars like Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Our parents’ friends often helped “curate” our television and movie fare, but no parent had to deal with devices that offered children round-the-clock entertainment with few restrictions on content.
Seed #9 – A Community of Readers
It seemed that there was reading material wherever I went. Theda’s and Polly’s beauty shops had stacks of magazines and time to read them while sitting under the hair dryer for thirty or forty minutes on Saturday mornings. Visits to relatives’ homes often lead me to the comfort of favorites like Home Life magazine and the Sunday newspaper comics spread out on the living room floor at my Aunt Ann’s.
Blakemore Drug Store was a favorite stop for buying a coke and drinking it at one of the small tables next to the magazine section, where I could flip through Seventeen, ‘Teen, and Ingenue magazines or buy an Archie or Katy Keene comic book. My first magazine subscriptions came by way of Blakemore’s, when I sent in the little subscription cards and was introduced to the magic of receiving monthly issues of my own.
Other reading “byways” were scattered around our small community, but I suppose that it all came back to our own living room, where cards and letters, magazines, newspapers, library books, study materials, textbooks, encyclopedias, church bulletins and paperback mysteries often came to rest. Until someone passed through, picked something up from the stash of treasure, and began reading.
Please join us for our next post, when we will explore some ways we can introduce some modern strategies to incorporate some of these “heirloom” reading seeds into our lives today.