I read a lot as a child. A ton. I was always begging the librarian to let me take out more than my allotted 25 books on my card, and I’ve had my library card number memorized since I can remember. Anytime I had to drive anywhere, I would take a book, even if it was just a ten-minute drive to the grocery store. To a detrimental point, almost, as I was the kid who tried to read at the dinner table, and who missed hearing stories about her grandparents’ childhood because she was reading, I read tons and tons of books from the second my sister taught me how to read.
But I wouldn’t say I was a very good reader. Even now, I am conscious of when I drift into skimming, and I can very easily get through ten or twenty pages and realize that, while I know the plot of what I was reading, I have no idea if the girl’s shirt was blue or if it was raining, because I trained myself to read quickly by skimming, not by reading all the words. This is probably why I am so good at writing dialogue and not so good at extended descriptive paragraphs. Dialogue is what my eye was drawn to as a reader (plus, I’m a talker), so it’s what I learned how to write. Fast reading certainly earned me points in elementary and middle school, and I won’t say that I was a bad reader. I did well in English classes, too. But I wasn’t really a great reader, and that hurt me when I got to the second half of high school and I had to read things that had been published more than twenty years ago, and I had to glean meaning from them. I had to guess why the writer was saying what they were saying, and what how they were saying it had to do with the message they were sending. I had to understand the historical, political, and cultural contexts of the author and of the story. Knowing the plot of the story wasn’t the same as knowing “what it was about.” And, even though I was also a very good writer, I didn’t really know how to read as a writer, either. Like Norma Fox Mazer said to me when I was 16, “You’re a very good writer. When will you use your talent to tell a story that matters?” In reading and in writing, I didn’t really understand yet how and why stories mattered.
Though I like to say I learned next to nothing in college, the thing that stood right next to that nothing was how to be a better reader. First it was Friday discussions with a PhD student and a group of awesome intellectuals having probably a similar college experience that I was having. Then it was the last three semesters, in which I had to read “hard” stuff, “old” stuff, and get good at finding meaning it without being spoonfed by a teacher. It was also when I started reading more newspapers, blogs, and hoity-toity magazines like The New Yorker. Before those last two years of high school, I had a lot of comprehension difficulties with older texts, and I never sought out help, because I wasn’t the kind of person who did badly in school. And I thought not understanding was a form of failure that was not in keeping with who I was, even though I also hated who I was and hated being pegged as “good at school.” It’s hard even now to comprehend that I had trouble learning something, and it’s very hard to admit it or believe it. That’s just not me. But I had to force myself to work at it.
I like to tell other people that things are only hard if you don’t practice them, because I love to insist that everyone will love reading if they only find a good book. Anyone who says that reading is hard doesn’t do it enough. After all, I find basketball difficult, and that’s because I shoot a basketball once every five years, probably. Not that I was ever good, but I was more decent in fourth grade when I played basketball at lunch every once in awhile. So when I thought about how I try to give other people advice on how to read (and I’m just talking pleasure reading), I realized that you have to read difficult stuff, older stuff in somewhat archaic language, stuff with jargon not from your field, and stuff that feels too literary to be understandable if you hope to make it any easier for you. Now I read everything. All the time. I did that as a child, but now I read literally everything, with more of an active brain. At work, the one mentally stimulating part of my job was bringing a book and reading it at the desk when nothing was going on. Now they won’t let me do that, so I look for anything to read. I read our calendar repeatedly. I read repetitive (interesting above all, but they all say the same thing) articles about the psychological importance of play for children. I read flyers for other museums and early childhood education programs. I have to read, because my mind is going a mile a minute and if I don’t focus on one thing, I’ll have too many ideas and they’ll all crash into each other. Seriously. The girl who found even Edgar Allen Poe to be incomprehensible at 16 now reads Oscar Wilde for fun. That may seem easy, but for a girl who never challenged herself in her reading, it’s a big accomplishment. I think I understand now how stories matter, even if the why is probably an eternal human mystery just like the meaning of life. I think I understand now how I am a writer, and what I’m doing when I manuever certain words and events and reactions. I think I am firmly on the boat of development from good to great now, instead of sitting in the average sea. And it’s a lot of fun to be rowing here.