My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 1, #35, May, 1996


Volumes have secrets.
Take them on holidays
The Church

I've done a lot of things in my checkered career. I've been a student, a teacher, a secretary, a librarian, a writer, a wife, a mother. The one thing that's been constant throughout, the thing that has gotten me through, is reading.

Without books, I don't think I'd have made it through my childhood. I was an ugly little girl. Not plain. Not homely. Actively, offensively ugly. I had big buck teeth, a round face with a receding chin, glasses, and a hairstyle that made all of that look even worse. Even now, looking back at pictures of myself, I am grateful my family loved me anyway--and no, parents do not necessarily love their ugly ducklings.

But if they loved me, the kids around me did not. They taunted me, with the casual unaware cruelty only children are capable of. They called me after a cartoon character in a popular toothpaste commercial "Bucky, Bucky Beaver." I had no idea how to deal with their taunts. So I went home and read books. Lots of them.

Books were a way of living in a kinder world, full of people who were loveable and loved. I could become one with beautiful heroines, interesting witches, brave explorers, mad inventors, dashing heroes. I was not bound by time or place or gender or age. I read about China and Oz, about the American Civil War and Henry VIII's England, about Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, about kids I understood and mysterious grownups I did not.

From Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett, I learned to hope that I too could find people who saw the mind and spirit inside my unprepossessing packaging. As I read I saw how these people dealt with their pain, how they made choices and decisions, and learned to deal with the consequences, how they took control of their lives. This gave me the courage to emerge from my cocoon of books, to seek people out and try to befriend them. It would not be a stretch to say that reading made me human.

I read to my son almost from the day he was born, and he grew up loving books and words as much as I did. That's probably why he has such an interesting mind--he has so many words and so many ideas and so much information stored inside his head, and he is in the habit of thinking about it, reassembling it, using it all to make the world make sense. He was a pretty odd kid growing up, a little island of literacy in a sea of ignorance.

You see, the kids around him didn't read much. Nor do most of the college students I work with read any more than they absolutely have to. They've never learned to really enjoy reading. And if you've never read a book from cover to cover in one sitting because it was too exciting to put down, you never really learn to read fluently. For so many students reading is a painful matter of lurching along from word to word, from sentence to sentence, missing the meaning of paragraphs, let alone the chapter, let alone the book.

Growing up without books is a handicap. Not just for the children, but for the world that is going to have to deal with them, the world that they will someday be in charge of. Because reading creates mind.

For starters, reading gives you words. You pick up vocabulary in context as you read; you make the words your own because you understand how they are used. And words are the basic tools of thought. What you have no words to express, you cannot clearly conceptualize.

Think about the abortion argument during the early days of the women's movement, when the positions were described as "pro-abortion" or "anti-abortion." "Pro-abortion" was not a term feminists could think with, because virtually nobody, including feminists, views abortion as an active good. When they came up with the term "pro-choice," it allowed them to talk about what it means to share your body with another being against your will, about how an unwanted child changes a woman's life not for nine months but forever, and about a government that dictates the relative worth of the life of the woman and the life of the child. And then the anti-abortion people trumped this ace with the term "pro-life."

Words matter. They determine what you are ABLE to think.

Reading also teaches a mental discipline. Once you are able to read fluently, swallow sentences and paragraphs whole, and race on to the end of the chapter, you are able to sit still and concentrate for long periods of time. You learn to follow an argument, or a narrative structure. You learn to put together clues, assemble living, breathing characters from the actions they perform and the words they say over the course of the story. You learn how minds work, how people think through ideas, assemble information as evidence, or abstract ideas from raw data. You derive a useful model for your own thinking.

Do you wonder that we have so many children who cannot sit still and pay attention? Raised on television that refuses to allow any image to stay on screen longer than two seconds, that refuses to go longer than seven to ten minutes without a commercial break, how can they learn to concentrate, to make sense of random, contextless, continuous information?

Reading also allows you to meet the minds of people you will never know, people who are separated from you by time and place, writers who may have died before you were born, characters who exist only in the mind of writers and their readers but are compellingly real nonetheless. The Indigo Girls talk about how reading Virginia Woolf's diary changed their lives: "here's a young girl on a kind of telephone line through time, the voice at the other end comes as a long lost friend...the river eclipsed your life but sent your soul like a message in a bottle to me and it was my rebirth."

I think reading is probably why I am so passionately opposed to racism and stereotyping. There are so many people I love because of the words they have written. I have no idea what they look like, or what categories people stick them into and dismiss them with. The world may despise and ignore older women, but if they write like Molly Ivins or Barbara Ehrenreich, we can see the minds inside the aging bodies. White Americans may fear and reject black men, but if they write like Robert Maynard or Ralph Ellison, we can see their minds, and understand how they experience the world. And we can learn from them.

Reading, of course, also gives you information. I do get upset with history teachers who are so afraid of teaching children "mere facts and dates." Facts and dates are useful things to know, after all. If you don't know what actually happened, how can you intelligently discuss the broad historical trends the teachers want to focus on? If you want to talk about immigration as a force in American life, you really need to have some idea how many people immigrated, what groups immigrated when, and how Americans reacted to each successive wave of immigration. You need to know about the "Know-Nothings" and other nativist groups who fought against immigration.

Of course teachers don't want to assign mindless rote memorization of facts and dates, devoid of meaning. But when you read, you pick up information, store it away, and fit it in with other information to make patterns of knowledge. I never took a course in British history, or read a book about it. But I can recite, pretty much in order, your kings and queens, and tell you when the peasants' rebellion was, why you fought your civil war, and how you ruled your colonies. That's because I've read books about little chunks of your history, like the highland clearances and Culloden and the civil war and the Restoration; I've read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens and Austen, but also Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie and various historical novelists; I've read George Orwell and John Stuart Mill and James Burke. And all this data gets filed away and reassembled in a rough mental time line.

I do wonder what effect the internet is going to have on reading. In some ways, it will make it far more necessary, because in spite of the lovely animations and graphics, the information on the net is still text based.

But hyper-text is adding an interesting wrinkle. It's a very user-driven concept. You may have written an article about immigration, but I may, if I choose, click on "Know-Nothings," in the middle of it and hypertext off to that article, read it, click on something inside that article, and so on, and never get back to the rest of what you wrote about immigration. As a reader, I find this convenient.

As a writer, I don't want to turn that kind of control over to you. I've gone to a lot of effort to think my way through an issue, and to organize my ideas in as logical and persuasive a fashion as I can. If you're going to read my writing at all, I want to maximize the chance that you will understand what I am saying. (As a teacher, I have already had the disheartening experience of reading myself in translation.)

But if internet users are not readers by choice, if they have never followed a sustained exposition, they won't have the patience to follow my argument, or anyone else's. If they get into the habit of haring off at every midly interesting scent along the way, they'll never find the fox they set out to capture. They may not even be aware there was a fox there to be followed.

I worry that Midnight Oil's vision of our future may be right. "Chopping down trees, get seas of print Not a soul can read." That's why I figure, whatever I may do with the rest of my life, it's going to have something to do with trying to preserve reading as a way of life--at least for those people I can reach and touch.

[note: I have started a column on my own web page called BookBytes. This is where I can put things that I think aren't really appropriate for My Word's Worth, which is supposed to be a general interest column. This is where I'm putting essays on books, and annotated lists of really neat books that can entice the most reluctant of readers. Feel free to visit it.]

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