I Was Not a Well-Read Child …

… and I’ve been playing a game of readaholic catch-up ever since.

My parents had the best of intentions when it came to books and reading.

My mother used to say: When you have a book, you have a friend. And she would tell us how she and her younger brother would sit side by side at the dining table, a book laid in front of them, the slow reader on the left, the fast reader on the right, the intervening pages held up vertically in the middle.

And from my father: Knowledge is heavy! This, jokingly, approvingly, as he hefted bags filled with library books into the trunk of the car.

Every other Saturday morning was the same: we’d pile into our VW Beetle and drive downtown. We’d park in the underground parkade and ascend to the library, a huge two-storey structure with the children’s library tucked in a corner of the basement. Because it was the 70s and this practice was de rigueur, my parents would say See you later! and wander off to do their own thing, my mother going to the paperback racks to select a dozen or more detective or romance novels, my father to the magazine section where he’d get his stack of back-issue Popular Mechanics or Popular Photography.

Most Saturday mornings, a gentle hum would greet me as I descended the stairs, and I’d have to skirt around the long vacuum hose that snaked a path behind the janitor as he cleaned the long, carpeted hallway that led to the children’s library. I’d pass through the check-out area where the librarian was busily and quietly working, and I’d enter the silent stacks.

And once there, I would wander … going from shelf to shelf … staring at the spines, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Indecisive about what to choose, and too shy to ask for help, I’d — more often than not — choose the same books, over and over and over again.

There was Charlotte’s Web; The Wizard of Oz; Harriet the Spy; Katie John; What the Witch Left; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great; Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me; Freaky Friday.

I remember hearing at one point, about a girl who’d decided to read every single book in her library. She was going to do it alphabetically, methodically; what an incredibly noble and worthy goal, I thought.

Every summer, I’d look at the race track the librarian had set up for the summer reading program and marvel — be awed, in fact — by the sheer volume of books other children were reading. I wanted to catch up to them; I really did! Oh, to read that many books!

And yet, what would I do?

I’d invariably choose the same books, over and over and over again, I’d go home with my bag stuffed full, sit on my bed and … cross-stitch.

I suppose it’s no wonder I was not a well-read child. (But I was a heckuva grandma, according to my brother’s best friend … ).

It was Rita’s post on purging books that set me to pondering about all of this, specifically her statement:

When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.

This is, I think, the absolute ideal, the magic that flows through stories, the reason so many people LOVE books. And while Rita’s words fit me to a T now, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t have that life-transforming relationship with books while growing up. While it’s clear that I suffered from an appalling lack of gumption as a child, it’s also fair to hazard — without laying blame — that I might have fared better if I had had some help in the book-choosing department. But those two factors aside, I think there was yet something else going on.

Ahem … there’s usually a point in my posts where I falter; either because I’m droning on (check!), or because I’m fast passing into the realm of Hmmm, should I really be admitting to XYZ? —

/ plunging onward regardless /

Here’s what I’m wondering …

What happens when lessons-on-how-to-live morph into something different? What happens when “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” crosses a line and becomes copying? Are any of you, dear readers, nodding your heads in understanding, completely *getting* where I’m going with this … or is what I’m about to say only relevant for those of us who should have been taken to a child psychologist instead of to a library?

It pains me to admit how long it took me to wake up to the stark reality embodied in the proverb, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Here’s the thing: for me, despite the fact that books were held up as friends, reading all-too-often became a double-edged sword. What should have been wonderful escapism or edifying lessons-on-how-to-live became instead angst-filled comparisons.

The sad fact is that, Charlie and James aside, the characters in the contemporary books I was reading led lives which seemed so much more preferable than mine. Some of these girls lived in New York City (my gosh, New York!); most of them were spunky and lively; some of them had fascinating quirks, and all of them seemed to be stubbornly who-they-were, no apologies given. I didn’t want to just imitate these characters in order to learn what to do and how to be; there was a part of me that strongly imagined, fervently hoped, that if I tried hard enough — that if I went around the neighbourhood à la Harriet the Spy, armed with a notebook and a pencil — I could somehow magically become one of these characters; I’d somehow cease to be me, a scrawny and shy and scared girl with parents who fought all the time but who — unlike storybook parents — wouldn’t mercifully divorce. And it’s only now as I stop to consider it, completely recognizing the bizarre overarching wishful wistfulness of it all, that I see this must have been a pretty exhausting way to grow up. Maybe it’s no wonder I stitched my heart out: beauty came flowing out of my hands; it was the only time I felt good about being me.

And then, far too young, I ceased making the trek downstairs. I left the classics — the books from another time and place, the books with characters I would have had enormous difficulty becoming, but whose lessons might possibly have helped me, books like The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women — unread on the shelf. By thirteen or fourteen I was upstairs, perusing the same racks my mother chose from, and escaping into detective novels and bodice ripper romances, feeding my mind on the continual, and rather addictive, metaphorical equivalent of candy and pop.

(I’m sure that last sentence is going to come off as elitist, and frankly, I’m not sure what to do about that. I swear I don’t look down on people whose entire literary diet is made up of V is for Vengeance and Fifty Shades of Grey*; I’m all for a little escapism … BUT … I think, and hope, it’s perfectly okay to admit to wanting to fill my mind with something a little more substantial).

It wasn’t until university that a lightbulb went off: if I was feeling as though I had somehow missed out on something important by not reading Margaret Atwood and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, well then, that was something that was eminently fixable, wasn’t it? All I had to do was to put down the Harlequins and pick up something else.

Ah, if only ALL problems were so easily solved …

So when it came to our children, I made it my mission: I was going to raise well-read kids. My kids weren’t going to wander libraries and bookstores, overwhelmed and indecisive! It seems to me that much of what we do as parents can be labelled pendulum parenting — I was raised this way, so I will do the polar opposite for my own children. Sometimes this can be a disastrous approach: a child raised in a totalitarian home grows up and decides to raise his/her own children with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Fortunately, there are no ill-effects from reading, and when my husband sent me this link a year or so ago, in which the benefits of being a reader were extolled, I admit I allowed myself a rare, Well, I’ve done something right at least.

What I didn’t count on, though, when setting out to raise readers, was how profoundly that process would change me; that when our first-born — our daughter — would spend hours parked on my lap, getting up only to fetch another book from our quickly growing supply, that when I would plant a kiss on her temple with every page turned, that that would not only be good for her, but it would also be good for me. The rhythms, the rhymes, the characters, the plots, the illustrations — all of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, nuances that wash over you as you read a story — together with the speaking-aloud in various voices and the physical contact … for someone who grew up in a turbulent household, this new-found sitting-cuddled-up-together and reading, this immersion into peaceful whiling-away of hours at a time, was pure healing and bliss. (I know. It sounds over-stated. But there it is … ).

It’s also, perhaps — or at least, I’m hoping (really, really, really hoping) — an insulator against troubled times. Our 16 (almost 17) year-old son has been testing us enormously these past few months, pushing pushing pushing at boundaries, and I have to say it’s been somewhat helpful (not enormously, but still … ) that after the hyperbole of you never let me do anything, after I’ve just been accused of shouting (when all I’ve actually done is levelled a counter-argument in a completely measured and non-shouty way), after the door slams, I’m able to bring to mind and hold tight the memory of him as a four year-old: blonde-haired and blue-eyed, cuddled against me, thumb in his mouth, completely engrossed in the encyclopedic DK Dinosaurs And How They Lived.

(Sheesh, where’s the gratitude? It’s not easy for a non-palaeontologist to roll ornithischian and rhamphorhynchus off her tongue).

Oh wait … maybe, one day, I dunno — when he’s 30? — he’ll remember this brief conversation he reportedly had with a boy shortly after moving here:

How’d you get to be so smart? he was asked.

I dunno, he replied. I guess because my mom read to me and she feeds me good food.

* Just for the record, when Fifty Shades of Grey was being passed around the cul-de-sac, when it was being read by ALL the women (and at least one of the men), I took my turn with it too.


11 thoughts on “I Was Not a Well-Read Child …

  1. I’ve been known to lean heavily on the sweet memories of those early years during trying times with my daughter, too. I am even so shameless as to talk about them with her: such and such happened when you were growing in my belly, I remember when you were a baby we used to x…. I think it’s useful to remind us both of the connection we have. I suppose a 17 year old might be wise to that kind of manipulation though. I hope the trying phase passes soon.

    Your stories of deciding to become a different kind of reader as a college student, and also of how reading to your kids healed you, are so moving. I think what reading has meant to you as an adult/young adult is at least as important as what it meant (or didn’t) to you as a child, so I hope you can let go of feeling “less than” about your reading back then. Actually from the chaos/stress you describe at home it makes perfect sense that you would return again and again to a few familiar books. Maybe they served more of a purpose to you than you’ve thought.


    1. I think you’re right, Sarah — those few familiar books absolutely were a source of comfort amidst the chaos. It’s also occurred to me that even if I HAD read some of the “edifying” classics as a child, their messages might have been completely lost on me. For example, when I finally read The Secret Garden, I was an adult, and I was so moved by the use of the metaphor of gardening (“where a rose is tended, a thistle cannot grow” (this is paraphrased, I think)) in order to put forth the idea that positive thoughts can crowd out negative thoughts, that I embroidered the phrase into a sampler. Would I actually have gotten that message as a child? Who knows…? As an adult, I’ve learned to make two proverbs my “mantras”: the “if wishes were horses” one, and also “the man cried because he had no shoes, until he saw the man who had no feet”, in order to make peace with the past, and I have largely managed to do that. Even though I wasn’t a voracious reader as a child, I am very grateful that my parents planted that seed. If they hadn’t cultivated the idea that reading was a worthy thing-to-do, if they hadn’t brought us to the library, if they weren’t readers themselves (no matter the material they were actually reading), perhaps I wouldn’t be the reader I am TODAY … and given how much joy and food-for-thought reading brings to my life now, well, that’s almost unimaginable!

      I’m glad I’m not the only one leaning on sweet memories to get through the trying times of raising children, and I don’t think it’s at all shameless to talk about them; I do this with our 10 year-old quite often. I think these issues with our middle son are made more difficult because he WAS — at a younger age — so cognizant and appreciative of things, much more so than our daughter EVER was. It’s definitely hard to go from being the person they cuddle up with, to feeling that you’re viewed as a roadblock. I know this phase will pass, though — it’s just a matter of getting through it without lasting damage being done.


  2. I was a voracious reader as a child, but like you, had a turbulent childhood and had certain favorites I returned to over and over and over again. The best example is Gone with the Wind. I’ve probably read it 100 times (this is not an exaggeration – it’s almost embarrassing to admit) and my husband knows that any time he comes across me reading my old battered copy that it’s best to give me a wide berth. It’s what I grab any time I find myself overwhelmed with something I’m just not ready to deal with yet. (How I love Scarlett’s phrase, “Oh, I can’t think about that now, I’ll think about that tomorrow.”) Old favorites provide a security – we know the flow of the words, we know the characters and how they will behave, we know what will happen next and when life is messy how comforting to have some predictability, even if it is only in the pages of a book.

    But I’m the opposite of you – I actually HATE reading aloud. I always have. It feels so slow and clunky to me. I loved snuggling up with a book and a baby but actually reading aloud drove me crazy! Now that my kids are reading independently, I love having them read to me (which is actually even MORE slow and clunky but doesn’t bother me in the least) or having all three of us curl up with our individual stack of books. I still read a couple of chapters aloud a night (currently we’re reading Hoot) because they enjoy it and that’s what good mom’s do, but it’s just never been my favorite. I wish I could enjoy it more!


    1. I actually think it’s great that you found such comfort in that one book in particular, and that it’s a book that can go with you throughout your life. (I’ve not yet read Gone with the Wind, but it is on my list). My favourite as a child was Charlotte’s Web, and although I don’t think I can say I read it 100 times, I’m sure 50 wouldn’t be a stretch. I think if my husband saw me reading it now, though, he’d think I was losing it; at least Gone with the Wind is totally acceptable to read again and again in adulthood 😉

      It’s funny (not haha funny, but interesting) that you say reading aloud feels slow and clunky — to me, reading aloud feels like I’m savouring each and every word, that I’m catching every little nuance in the story. Even when I read on my own, silently, I tend to say the words aloud in my head (does that even make sense?) because then I feel like I’m catching everything, even though it definitely IS a slower way to read. Our youngest, at ten, is probably nearing the age when he won’t want me to read aloud to him anymore, and I have to admit I’m dreading that day! (Although, maybe if I can get him to sit beside me — or at least, in the same room! — as we both read independently, it won’t feel like such a loss … the image you’ve drawn with “having all three of us curl up with our individual stack of books” actually sounds very cozy!)


  3. I’m not even sure where to begin in my response to this. I looked to books for solace, companionship, etc. because I was a girl much like the one you describe yourself as being. I longed to live someplace as interesting as Anne, and to be as unique as Harriet, and to have a family like Katie John’s. I read to escape as much as anything else–probably mostly to escape being me.

    And when I became a teen, I devoured light, trashy stuff. I also read quite a bit of the classic stuff. I was what some now call a book slut; I’d read anything. (I hate that word, but oh well.) I’m not sure how I was able to find the time for all that reading, but I did. I also beat myself up some for not reading all the “good” books I thought I was supposed to, or for not liking all the ones I tried. I remember reading a few pages of Pride and Prejudice in high school and not returning to it and feeling like a shallow fake of a reader. But then I read it in college and loved it, and I realized that it just wasn’t the right time for me back when I’d first tried it. I’ve always kept that in mind as I’ve worked with adolescent readers over the years.

    As for kids and reading–I learned pretty early that I could lead my kids to classics but I couldn’t necessarily make them read. I got over it. My daughter credit The Boxcar Children for turning her into a reader. I hated those formulaic books with the cardboard characters, but she loved them. I bought them for her, and I read them to her, and I smiled as I did it because I knew the most important thing was for her to read. I used reading aloud to read the books I most wanted to share with them, and when I look back now on their childhoods I’m pretty sure that what I treasure most were all the nights I read to them before bed.

    We’ve also been going through a challenging time with my son, and I know just what you mean about looking at this almost-man (mine is also 17) and seeing in him the boy who loved to read with me. Sometimes it keeps me going (when I can still see that boy inside the almost-man) and sometimes it breaks my heart (when I can’t and when I let myself feel how much I so miss that boy).

    I sure wish we could get together and drink a cup of tea and talk about so many things. I’m glad we get to do this, though. We do because we’re readers, you know?


    1. I kinda hate the word too, but if you were a book slut, Rita, then I was absolutely a cross-stitch slut — anything my mom would bring home from her (almost annual) trips to The Netherlands, I’d stitch, no matter if I really liked the project or not. And if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that the stitching — which I DID love, and WAS very good at — was also a form of wishful thinking and escapism. “Everyone” (well, girls and women, that is) in The Netherlands had some sort of fibre arts hobby, which I saw first-hand when I visited there when I was 6, 9, 12, and 15 — and OH! to be able to LIVE in that amazing place, to BE one of my lucky cousins … that was my young heart’s desire more than anything! I know for a fact that the whole wishful thinking/imitation game played a role here as well. And it’s funny that you say you wonder where you found the time to do all the reading you did; I’ve often looked back on my prolific stitching and have wondered exactly the same thing.

      I can relate to feeling like a shallow fake as well. How could a girl who was supposed to be so smart (because technically, I was) be so poorly-read and unaware and (frankly) ignorant? I remember feeling utterly tongue-tied at hearing the conversations some people were having around me at university, hearing the opinions people were professing about current events, etc…

      I wasn’t a fan of The Boxcar Children either; our daughter went through a phase of them as well. I too, figured that the most important thing was the reading, not necessarily the material, but I have to admit that I drew a line in the sand when it came to Junie B. Jones. They irritated me to such a degree that I told our daughter that while SHE was welcome to read them, I wouldn’t be reading them aloud to her. (This was the only time I ever refused a read-aloud, although Geronimo Stilton has come precariously close to this fate as well!)

      Ah, we could talk for hours over tea (days, even!) and never run out of things to ponder … I would love that too, but this (the reading and writing) is a close second 🙂


      1. I read so. much. Geronimo Stilton! And they are huge favorites at the elementary libraries in my school district. 🙂 I was glad my kids weren’t huge Junie B. fans–but I’m glad so many kids find their way into reading through her.


  4. I was sort of the the opposite–I was a voracious reader from an early age, and would read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, from Johnny Tremain to recipes on a pasta box. I was a really well-read child, in large part because we moved so often. Books were easier than people. I got my first taste of bodice rippers around the age of twelve and everything went downhill from there.

    I still like bodice rippers but I read very little adult fiction. I can guarantee I haven’t read anything on the NYTimes bestseller list. My reading these days is blogs and history books.

    I can remember also being left in the basement of the library at the age of six while my father perused the shelves upstairs. I remember on more than one occasion my father forgetting me in the basement while the kid section closed and I sat on the stairs, waiting for him to come and get me…and then I eventually started wandering the adult shelves. To this day my family still goes to bookstores together, especially used bookstores.

    One of my kids has some learning disorders, and was slow to learn to read. That was really foreign to me and took a lot of telling myself to throttle back. To get him interested in reading I waved comic books and graphic novels under his nose. For a very long time I despaired of ever getting him into reading books with more words than pictures, but he is now happily reading actual books. I am so thrilled to have discussions about Harry Potter with him.


    1. I’m so glad you chimed in here, Lisa! I had read your post on the beeping fridge and Outlander, in which you asked for recommendations, and I wondered if you liked Outlander for the romance or for the history; I’m now going to make the assumption it was for both 🙂 . I read the first few Outlanders way back when they first started coming out, alongside my MIL, who had just gotten back into reading. She had, for years and years, not been reading anything at all, and then my husband and I (who practically lived in bookstores in our early marriage) bought her the first of Sharon K. Penman’s Welsh series, “Here Be Dragons” (which is wonderfully written historical fiction), and she hasn’t looked back since! I guess this is a convoluted way for me to ask you if it’s historical fiction you’re into, or if it’s straight history … but either way, have you read any of Penman’s books? I LOVE historical fiction, and will dabble in the NYT bestseller list if it’s historical, but I usually don’t end up getting to those until years after they’ve been on the list. (My next post is going to be about books too, and I’ll elaborate about this then).

      I would have done exactly the same — offer comic books — if it were my child who was a slow-to-learn reader. In fact, although our youngest didn’t have difficulty with learning to read, he was/is much less of a “reader” than our older two kids, and I’ve gone out of my way to provide comics, because he absolutely loves them (and they’re the way to get him to stop asking for the i-pad, a distraction I didn’t have to contend with with our older two, grrr … ). A while ago we watched the documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson” (about the Calvin and Hobbes creator) and while it was merely an “ok” documentary, one thing stood out for me: a librarian commented that comics are considered “low art”, but then said that this is really an unfair classification, because the process of combining artwork and writing is actually quite a complicated thing. When I think of the genius and nuance of Calvin and Hobbes (which our son reads and re-reads) I know he’s filling his head with much more than just a “lowly comic”. He does read actual books too, just as your son does now, and — as with our other two — I love love love having discussions with him about books, and Harry Potter is our absolute favourite 🙂 . (In fact, I have to say that I so enjoy talking about books and reading, and how and why people read the stuff they do, that this blog could easily become nothing other than that!)


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