The Narrative of My Life, Book by Book—Just Kidding. That Would Take TOO Long!
An Informal Essay that began as a Freewrite
By Janet Mitchell-Wagner
On the television show, The Middle, there is a character who is considered the geeky outcast because he loves reading books more than anything else and has issues with relating with people. In my humble opinion, he has a hard time relating because there are not so many people who he can talk to about reading because they are all too busy watching TV! I understand that it may be ironic that I start off criticizing people who watch too much TV when I am citing a TV character, but as much as I LIKE TV, I LOVE reading. When I think of stealing a bit of time to myself, nothing sounds better than taking a hot bath while reading a good book. Oddly, however, I don’t think I have really ever considered WHY I am that way until I took a bit of inventory about my own reading history.
My parents were both teachers (mother was an elementary teacher and my father in high school). They read to me a lot, but I also had access to books from home and the library. I remember vividly when I actually learned that I knew how to read. One day when I was four years old, my mother was looking through some of her old third grade readers trying to find something for me to read. I asked her what she was doing and she told me. Then I picked up a random one and asked what was wrong with it. She told me it was too difficult for me. I opened it up and began to read aloud. I was so proud. My grandparents happened to be coming over that day, and I was excited to show them that I “learned” how to read. Looking back, I wonder how long I actually did know and what my own process was. The experience gave me the confidence to join the community of “readers.” I felt like an “insider.”
I attended elementary school in the 70s when it was “the thing” to assign phonics workbooks—I hated phonics. I hated it. I didn’t know what it had to do with reading, but I found the workbooks boring. Oddly enough now, I actually used phonics to help my own children learn to decode, but I think the workbooks are a bit more fascinating now, AND once they learned how to read I stopped making them do it. I had to do them no matter what—I wonder if they made me a better speller? I am pretty good at it even though I never entered any spelling bees. I also loved to write stories—I think it was my extension of my own reading. Sadly, I have no record of these stories. My mother kept them, but when she died (I was 11), my aunt threw all of it out. I don’t blame her—my mother and I tend to save a lot.
Part of my love of reading as a child stems from the fact that I was born cross-eyed. As a result, I wasn’t too coordinated because I only used one eye at a time (still do), very unlike my super-star athlete sister. Yet, I still played sports, but I was never picked first. I am competitive though, and I think my own knowledge that I was an advanced reader made a huge difference in my tenacity to get through some rather tedious texts as well as gave me some self-esteem. At the same time, I don’t think I am smarter than everyone else—I wonder(ed) in awe at the understanding that some readers seem to glean off the page that didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t know why that was when I was younger, but as an adult it is what makes me yearn to be part of a book club. I am not part of one, except for one that meets two months in the summer that I coordinate. I want to be part of a regular book club as a member, not a leader. One day when life isn’t so busy I will take the time to find one and join. I will say that when I do enter a conversation about books either from being a student in a class or just as a casual conversation that sometimes I feel ignorant when I hear what others have to contribute, but I try to learn from them as opposed to being jealous—this is my outsider feeling.
One of my best memories as a child was going to the library with my dad every week or two. Each person could check out 14 books. I would find 14 and put the rest of mine on my dad’s card—he would check out three or four. We did this regularly. It lead me to reading books that, looking back, my folks probably wouldn’t have wanted me to, but people didn’t talk about it then like they do now. When my mother died, my dad still took me to the library, but he also took me to the book store. It started my addiction to actually owning the books. My poor husband, who is like the neat-nick Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, has a terrible time with my book habit. His mother gave me a Kindle for my birthday a year and a half ago—he asked me if I would stop buying paper copies. I told him I would slow down, but I still needed books.
As a young college student at Pasadena City College, I didn’t know what my major was going to be. It wasn’t until my third year there (I went to Oxford and wanted to take an extra year) with all the extra English classes I took (I still have units that don’t count for anything) that I decided to be an English major. I had a lot of angst about it though. I remember saying to a professor who inspired me that I didn’t know enough to be a teacher. He gently reminded me that I had years left to become prepared and to read more—he said he had 20 years on me! That opened my eyes. Another thing that worried me was that in my English classes, we did a lot of grammar which I found to be boring—I didn’t want to spend the majority of my time teaching it. Oddly enough, when I began teaching high school in 1993, grammar was given the boot! In its place, came whole language. In retrospect, I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater—a little grammar is important. (A little grammar goes a long way.) While I learned how to read using whole language (not what they called it when I was little); not everyone learns to decode or eventually write that way. Grammar doesn’t help you become a better writer, but it does help you understand how to avoid some common mistakes or find mistakes.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I really knew about literary theory. Why is that? I feel robbed to this day. I took so many English classes, you would think someone would have said something. I sort of intuited it because of something that happened. Once I took an English class at P.C.C. and we studied Oedipus Rex. I took all sorts of notes based on lecture and discussion. The very next semester, I had a class where we studied the very same text. I felt very lucky. I knew what it was about, or so I thought. As we went through it, I answered some of the professor’s questions. She looked at me puzzled and asked me where I got those ideas? I told her from another class. It turns out that one prof was a Marxist and the other something else. I would have been able to understand the metacognitive concept of theory even if I didn’t know all the theories themselves. I thought that once you learned what a book was about that you had all the answers—lecture is one of the reasons I thought that. Professors lectured on a book, then you wrote a paper, and then you went on to the next book. This is definitely an example where I felt like an outsider.
I have been reading for almost forty years now—wow, I don’t know whether to feel proud of myself or just feel old! Some of my more current thoughts about reading that are based in my reality: I really do believe in reading books over—which is why I hesitate going to the library. If I like a book, I want to re-read it. I won’t remember to re-read it if I don’t have it. I could start listing, but it isn’t the same as seeing the book and remembering that I liked it even though I remember little about it. I have to say that I don’t much take my own children to the library—it is really embarrassing that I don’t, and I need to start, but we go to the book store. But I really like owning books—they own lots of books. That needs to be my New Year’s resolution. Having a Kindle has allowed me to not bring so many books into the house; they still arrive every month or so, but not in the high quantity that I used to.
I wish my husband and I read more together. I should tell him again. Once when he was unemployed during the severest part of the recent recession, he read The Alchemist and told me the plot bit by bit. I really enjoyed that; I never personally read it, but feel like I did because he gave me the lowdown for every chapter. Right now he is reading the Harry Potter series to all of us. I admit that if we weren’t going to the Harry Potter Museum in London, I probably wouldn’t have read the books on my own. Yet, I am LOVING the books. I sometimes read a bit ahead, but I have to be careful—if my kids see me, I am in trouble. They tattle on me!
Once I had children, my book buying habit moved to the kid’s section. From day 1, I have read books to my kids EVERY day. With my first, I had a set of books that I would read to her every morning and another set at night. We would read in the middle of the day, too. As she became a preschooler, she would scream, “Again, again, again!” She is now 12 and ½ is slightly dyslexic—I say slightly because that is my own biased opinion. She is a real reader, but her spelling has issues. As her primary teacher, it has been difficult to see my own child have this issue. At the same time, she reads at least five grades above grade level, according to the yearly tests. Yet, what do they really know??? What is lovely is that she will read books I suggest because she says I know what she likes—what a compliment that I will take with me forever. We both love books. She veers a bit into sci-fi beyond what I normally tend to like. It is nice that she and her father enjoy some of the same books, too. Like me, she likes to read the book before seeing the movie. If I know something is going to come out, I try to make sure she has an opportunity to do just that.
My younger daughter who is 7 has been better decoder than my older, but she is less patient at times with reading—she either likes it or doesn’t—she isn’t patient if she doesn’t like it. I am making her choose two “medium” books for her to read each day. It is funny—she and I both know what I mean by that even though we never discussed it outright. I mean books that are at her level, but aren’t necessarily chapter books. I am fine with her looking at books below her level, but I want her to gain the confidence to actually make it a conscious choice to read. She loves to listen to stories, but not as much as I want her to. Am I being too controlling???
Both my girls began to read independently later than I did. I wonder about that sometimes—is it something I did not to foster or is it that they just liked hearing me read and didn’t worry about learning? Or is it that they didn’t feel the pressure to learn early? I don’t know why it really matters, but I still think about it—maybe because it was such a source of pride with me that I want to pass it down to to them.
I do like reading, but there are books that I have to be patient with—I will give them a certain number of pages to get good and then I might set them down, never to be read again. I talk to my students about that. Sometime you just need to quickly plod (is that possible?) through and go back and re-read if you missed something. Some of the greatest literature is like that for me. That is why I try to choose various types of texts. I don’t want them to think that there is only one type a truly literate person likes. I remember an English professor once saying how dreadful The Reader’s Digest was. That really resonated with me, but later on I came to a different conclusion. Who cares if you do or don’t like it? I give myself permission to like what I like, darn it!
Finally, I hate it when someone asks me who my favorite author is. People find out I teach English and in order to make small talk, they ask. I always look like a deer caught in the headlights. I don’t know who my favorite author is. I like certain books. I love certain books. But I don’t have a favorite—I guess it is whatever I am reading at the time. It is like asking me to find a needle in a haystack. The reality is that when I really have the time I read so much that I forget what a particular book is about within a year or two if not sooner. I don’t feel super proud of that quality, but at least I am able to reread again with gusto! So, that is my story—part of it at least. At some point, I hope to revisit it and add—not just new things, but old ones as well.