I wish I could say – as someone like Eudora Welty might, that my love of reading came to me in my earliest years, that I took to it like a fish to water. But ultimately it was my laziness that brought me to a love of reading, not some natural affinity.
Because illiteracy ran in the family, my mother was determined each of us should learn to read. She was not gentle in her teaching but she was committed. For both of us, the process of learning was a struggle.
It wasn’t that I was one of those rowdy boys who’d rather be pulling the wings from insects or tearing my tough skins climbing trees and bonding with other kids through the ritual of eating mud in a secret club house. It was just that I’d rather sit in my room and have tea with finely dressed and witty imaginary creatures: giraffes in neck ties, salamanders in tails, pirates and their well-spoken parrots, and porcupines in tiaras, for example.
All that is fine, my mother might have thought, but still, you must learn to read. And so I was called down from my room, sat at the kitchen table, and given a book. Not to eat, mind you, but to read.
The first book I remember her assigning me was one of those Madeleine books. I did not care for Madeleine and her books. The words were poorly spaced and the pages’ pictures seemed too lemony-yellow and blighted with bright blues. Madeleine seemed such a nuisance. Worse, the books themselves were bulky and hard, with covers stiff and rough as a Sunday collars.
Still, it was Madeleine I was to read. Any word misread meant a sharp smack and a new addition to my ever increasing vocabulary list. (Should a word have the misfortune of ending up on this list, it would be forced to be written in my hand a hundred times and to be presented in parades of perfect columns on the page for my mother’s scrupulous inspection.)
The Winnie the Pooh books were so much better! A complete relief, really. The colors were softer and there were more words per page arranged in lovely lines and paragraphs. The font was better and far more imaginative. You could look at the letters and find comfort in the way they settled next to each other and as a result, the words had none of the bluntness of Madeleine’s.
I loved Kanga, too. I could tell by the soft-as-water illustrations that though she was firm with Roo, she loved him dearly. And Pooh’s logic! Now that was a logic I could follow, just as I could relate to his honey-pot errors.
Finally, they were better bound, those Pooh books, too, making them to my mind superior. (The only disappointment in the Pooh books were the occasional intrusions by Christopher Robin.)
It could be rightly said that any early love I had of books was entirely physical, an almost typographical kind of affair.
I was about to attend high school in the coastal California town in which I was raised. Before being admitted, however, and because of a certain dreaminess that had proven detrimental to my junior high grades, I was required to take some summer courses.
The summer English class was taught by a gaunt, immaculately dressed, and terribly tall man named Dr. Trimble. He was very pale, too, and had eyes that seemed as swift and inky as a shark’s. I liked him tremendously. He seemed from an entirely different world. He seemed like someone you’d want over for tea.
Our first homework assignment: we had until Friday to read the short story The Dead by James Joyce. And come Friday, we’d have to write an essay in class on its theme.
So much can happen in the space between a Monday afternoon and a Friday morning. I can’t recall what had happened all those years ago on that particular week, but I can tell you unequivocally that I hadn’t done my homework, per se, and that I had left The Dead still unread.
There was about an hour yet before class, which I was to spend in the library reading the story from the photocopied pages he had given us, determined not to fail Mr. Trimble. Surely, somewhere in the hour, though, I lost track of time – for when I lifted my eyes from the story’s final words, the snow had not only stopped falling, but it had melted and the dry grasses that surrounded the school were now threaded with a kind of golden light.
It took me some moments to realize that I was not in Dublin at a Christmas dinner but in Pacifica, California in the exhausted heat and adolescent fumes of summer school, that the last time it had snowed in this town was twenty-something years ago, and that I was late for class.
When I arrived to class, everyone was at their desk writing on the assigned topic. Mr. Trimble looked up at me. I went to make up an excuse for my tardiness, but all I could manage to say was,Mr. Trimble, I saw the silence.