I Liked to Read: A Note on the Death of Reading

by Liz

Elizabeth Hayes

English 4360 – Literary Theory

4 February 2010

Losing Friends

I liked to read. I liked it very much, in fact. My marble-round child eyes slurped up words like alphabet soup. I remember Go, Dog, Go being folded, opened, cracked, crinkled, and thumbed until it became brown around the edges from finger grime, as did the mythology section of the Webster’s Dictionary. My mother can still flip right to that section because of the sepia line ringing the pages. My mother taught me to love reading when I was still very young. My mother read Laura Ingalls’ The Little House series to me every night before bed, chapter by chapter, for two years. I learned about wolves, maple syrup, sod houses, prairie fires, and buffalos while most of my friends preferred to watch TV and eat Spaghetti-Os. My mother bought all sorts of books for me, but none really felt like they were mine. I longed for a book of my own.

One day when I was six, I found a little green book called A Birthday is a Special Day at a church yard sale —a lithographed gem floating on a tiny island in the middle of a gelatinous ocean of burbling magma. Why so? The thin green volume rested at the very edge of Helen Rose’s booth. Helen Rose’s gnarly old hands laced with lavender veins, her gently curved back under her pink sweater, and her spider-web white bun made her sweet looking, but the woman raged as no bull ever has or ever will.

She clamped her arthritic hands around the church library like a miser’s fist around gold. The books did not budge from those shelves. If you did gather enough moxy to check something out, she became your personal poltergeist until every page, stitch, and letter was back on the shelf, snuggled into the blanket of dust from whence it came.

What brain aneurism, amnesia, or dementia prompted her to suddenly sell off  her printed treasure, I might never know, but A Birthday is a Special Day teetered at the edge of the table, tottering in the crisp September breeze.

I stole it—snatched it right off the edge more stealthily than a mouse steals oatmeal. I squirreled that book away, into the juniper bushes that prickled and bit. Blue juniper berries smushing my pastel dress into a pastel mess, I sucked up the happy rhymes and reveled in the spindly, curly font. The book was as friendly, spirited, and idyllic as the friends I didn’t have. I hugged it to my chest and felt fulfilled. I fell under the spell of words, into the binding embrace of an open chapter. The slender green book had stolen me in return.

The little book sent my desire to read spinning. I whirled through the family library, reading everything from The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar to the Encyclopedia Britannica and even some old chemistry textbooks. The back of the Frosted Cheerios box took two minutes in my morning routine and advertisements for discount shampoo and orthopedic shoes that scattered out of the Sunday paper never hit the floor. Anything with language on it, even unintelligible French warnings on the car visor, I strained to absorb as quickly as my mind could process.

By the time I reached middle school, I had read The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Greenwitch, The Unlikely Ones, The Cube Route, and The Giver. National Geographics that arrived in a brown paper sleeve printed with pandas or Neanderthals took thirty minutes to consume. The glossy paper, color pictures, and fascinating articles inside made my school work—mundane essays and state-mandated short stories—seem grey and distant: clouds edging a star-blazed sky. Nutrition labels on the over-salted cans of Campbell’s soup, annoying subscription postcards that tumbled out of Newsweek, and the anticipated bi-monthly Chemical and Engineering News spoke to me, shared their life experiences with me. They still held a warm friendship for me even as my human companions left me behind.

While my personal reading blossomed, my school reading wilted. I never liked school. I hated it, in fact. Screaming children, wicked playground games, rotten milk in gluey cartons, and over-worked teachers beyond retirement battered my body and scarred my brain with unwanted human truths. I tried to hide from the chaos in my books, but soon enough, my printed friends fell victim to education.

Sixth grade brought Mrs. Lopez and her sentence by sentence plod through Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I could not force myself, even threatened with demerits, to slow down to her lethargic, clumping pace. As we took turns around the room I wanted to scream when Andrew Garcia missed his sentence once again because he was sucking the ink out of his golden gel pen.

“Let’s start at the beginning of the paragraph again, shall we?” Mrs. Lopez would say.

I had already finished the chapter and began to count off what passages I would have to read. I marked each one with a star and read the next chapter between sentences. My clever escape was discovered soon enough.

I had lost myself three chapters ahead, wondering how the rats came across their names, when I felt the teacher’s vile blue pen smack my neck.

“Elizabeth! Keep up!” Mrs. Lopez barked.

Punishment was hand-copying the chapter in cursive during lunch hour, but neat handwriting couldn’t save me. My constant reading ahead assaulted my read-aloud time and continued to cost me brownie points in the “smart kid” department. By ninth grade, my refusal to retard my reading pace finally caught up to me.

Assuming that I flat-out couldn’t read, the school put me in freshman remedial reading where I wrote haikus about Prince Caspian and did mindless plot worksheets until my bored brain finally exploded. Arching up like a cobra, I flung my pencil at the chalkboard, livid. I was ushered to the office where the principal asked what the class had been doing.

“Oh, we were writing plot triangles over chapter four,” Mrs. Greywell said. She held up the purple ditto sheet with a picture of a grinning cartoon boy holding up a pyramid labeled “Feeling Words.” I had filled my pyramid with a sketch of a ragged dancing bear, pierced through the nose by an iron ring, from that month’s issue of National Geographic.

“Dance, you fool, dance!” I had scrawled underneath.

I was eventually moved to the regular English class, but it was hardly different. The work was longer and stories duller. The large, purple anthology, six years old and tearing at the spine, held a few good poems, a smattering of fresh prose, a plethora of fascinating biographies, but we never read any of those. Instead, the class took up their pens and slashed through exhausted passages of Dickinson and Shakespeare like savages.

Sixteen is a turbulent time in anybody’s life, and I was no exception. Suddenly life was thrust at me on anything but a silver platter—more like a seething basket of snakes. I went to a private Methodist school because Espanola High ran rampant with drugs, gangs, and a vicious anti-white prejudice. A fair-skinned geek like me, my parents knew, would not survive for long at public school. What they did not know was that private Methodist school brought different challenges, forcing the war from the physical realm into a mental or even spiritual one.

The required religion courses were not intrinsically bad. The information they brought was actually fascinating, but the teacher, oh, the teacher! A small, fish-faced old man with a wild fringe of white wiry hair that flared out like a grass skirt over his ears ran the classroom. The first day of class every year he stood in front of the room, using a yardstick like a cane, and rocked back and forth on his heels. A ghoulish grin spread his mounded wrinkles.

“Welcome to my classroom,” he said. “I am Mr. Bruner.”

He rocked back and forth. His imp eyes glittered.

“Here, I am God.”

Mr. Bruner wasn’t joking. He wielded his power like the Old Testament God: wrathfully. You did as he said; spoke as he ordered; thought as he desired you to think. He assigned books not to read them, but so he could re-write them under his own divine influence. Hinds Feet in High Places, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and even Jurassic Park —all utterly decimated by the touch of his translucent, pink fingers.

The worst, the very worst, of the lot was The Screwtape Letters. Devils, voices, tricks, hellfire, and fouled religion brightened his imp eyes like no other story in his massive library. The mangled book scrambled my adolescent brain. The Screwtape Letters wasn’t like the other books I had read. Under Mr. Bruner’s oppressive preaching, the book offered no comfort, no kinship, no love. It growled at me from under my bed, breathing, haunting my nights with shadows in the corner of my room. I could see the specter’s claws reaching out from the darkness, black as India ink, spreading over my walls, carpet, sheets like a flood. The voices howled in my head, for the book had woken the devils of my dreams. The nagging voices laughed at me, taunted my insufficiencies, and circumvented my last threads of sanity.

It killed me. Verily, it did. More than the boredom of poetical annotations or theme descriptions, the words that skittered through my brain did more damage than any other literary exercise. The teacher’s twist of a book intended to enlighten plunged me into darkness instead. The world was no longer a safe place. Books were not all friends anymore. I discovered books shoved in the back of closets, on the bottom shelves of libraries, and in the backpacks of my friends, full of horror, desecration, hatred, and evil. I learned how distorted a book can become in the hands of a vicious teacher and how a book can destroy as much as it builds.

It is only fitting to me that a book should lay me open the way I have done to them for so many years, dirtying my edges as my fingers had crusted the pages of picture books so many years ago. High school might have frightened me from books, but I still found reading a comforting entertainment in the dull hours of the night. There was still the beauty of the language, if not of the content. The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Canterbury Tales delighted me during my junior and senior years of high school. I wrote some of my best essays, poems, and letters under the influence of these and other works. The way the words trickled, skipped, flowed like blood, even in the horror, was beautiful. Their words were worth a thousand pictures. Then the content, too, was suffocated from my soul.

I liked to read. I liked to read very much. Now, I do not read. I still long for the old books, the feeling of belonging and calm they gave to me when I sat under the ash tree and read until the sunset turned the light too purple to see. College stole the light utterly.

The dark clouds that had roiled on the horizon since grade school broke free from the mountains, roared over the valley of my conscience, thundering, flashing, and raging, and settled their darkness over my head. The storm of words and notions fogged over my vision as the wind of speculation picked up paragraphs and smashed them into theory. The bindings, empty, begging for me to save them, whirled away in the tempest like limp bodies.

The books I thought I knew, the plays I once loved, are actually thinly disguised smut. The beautiful words are only lies. The language is a Persian rug to cover a foundation of mud. Books are not friends, I was told, they are malicious mazes and monsters dwell between the lines. The scholars mocked my child-like love of literature, taunting me with spiteful vigor and turns-of-phrase. I put my hands over my ears, squeezed my eyes shut, and clamped my mouth closed because everything was wrong.

It was wrong to rip my relationship to the writing from me and substitute another; wrong to laugh at my emotional response, my ties, my devotion to these tomes; wrong to chase from my eyes the beauty I saw; wrong to change the way I think. To change me. It was wrong to rip the literature out of my soul and turn us into nothing but objects to be studied.

Books have souls. Ink is their lifeblood. I dread reading now, because I know that I will have to murder the work, dissect it down to its smallest organs. I am not a butcher. I am a small child who reads with a corrupted innocence that longs to read again, but I am given knives disguised as knowledge. Every word is cut out, ingested, digested, and vomited out again, a reader’s bulimia. I love the taste, but oh the horror of the weight it gives me! The Os plead with their gaping mouths while every “i” stares in horror. I cannot look at them. I cannot.

I do not fear death. I do not fear pain. I do not wish to remain naïve and oblivious to suffering. I can appreciate the turns in life, good and bad, but I cannot abide having something so close and loved rendered meaningless by blather. The world has enough noise and confusion as it is. I wish to read again, alone, in peace.

_________________

“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

{attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery}

I see the problem more clearly now. However, this time, I am on the other side of the classroom, the wretched teacher forced to brandish the fiend knives and command brains with hardly a desire in them to dice up some essay on economical depletion or other such dense drivel. Many students of mine hardly muster the will to read the picture captions in People Magazine; a six page article on Abraham Lincoln explaining the complex relationships between his cabinet members is like having to eat a mill’s worth of sawdust.

What have we done to reading? What has become of books? They are no longer something to treasure or even respect. There is a huge split now and not just literate/illiterate. Books have become a religion. Those read to dissect a book brag righteously about it, lording it above others, while those who loathe reading fight vehemently against any mere suggestion of digesting a  written word. It is not because the books are objects to worship or scorn, but because many people have never been taught to read. Yes, I said it: in our attempt to foster educational growth, we have taught literacy, not reading.

I believe it is because our obsessive literary dissection has turned books from enjoyable experience into overwhelming puzzles. Some people are adept at these puzzles. They derive great satisfaction from finding all the hidden meanings amidst the double-speak. But others are not so inclined and they are not to be blamed for it any more than someone ought to be blamed for enjoying spicy foods or being terrible at basketball. However, the popular method for teaching literature is doing future generations a great disservice because it insists that in order to comprehend a passage, it must be completely disassembled and reassembled before you’re allowed to move onwards to the next victim.

Children are no longer taught to just pick up a book to read it. They are trained to pick up a book and pick it apart, which only teaches them that knowledge from books is a nasty chore akin to fishing a quarter out of the cafeteria dumpster. If reading a book is made into such tedious work without an explanation about the purpose or rewards for the labor, of course people will seek the comforting embrace of a movie that does the explaining for them! It’s human nature to find the easy way out, so the phenomena is not unexpected. It’s just sad that the thing most people are trying to escape from understanding the written word.

I don’t believe that books are dead yet. We may have sliced them up and shoved the remains into the dusty closet of academia, but there is still hope for a revival. The electrifying kick literacy needs isn’t more essays, worksheets, or lectures. The hope for the book lies in the most sacred part of the school day: recess. Get poor, pale pages out of the sickly, yellow florescent hell of the classroom every once and a while and show people how to read just for the reckless pleasure of it! I am not against schoolwork, projects, and discussion. There are lots of important messages hidden in between the black and white type that must be found in order to fully grasp the gravity of a story. It is not discover that I am disillusioned with but our way of teaching dissection before the student fully comprehends and appreciates the object which they are slicing apart.

I realize that this is why I no longer read. I, too, have been sucked in by the complicated task of reading for tricks, rather than treats. I have only read about three books all the way through in the past two years, often because my whole day is spent shredding the same passages over and over for a group of students who were never taught the beauty of words. I used to be able to digest about three books in a day. Now, I feel a weariness towards them that I imagine my students have learned to feel.

But I am trying. I am taking the first small steps in my own Reading Rehab program. I will not let literary  theory/synthesis/exposition and its dogma weigh down the glory of enjoying a good book (or even a terrible one even now and then for a deliciously bad shock). I enjoy some of the little puzzles between the lines, but I have re-learned which ones are meant to be solved and which ones are coquettish phantoms that the author never meant to put there. The years have taught me what research is practical  and worthwhile and which is pointless. I have directionality now. I have hope that in the future, others will not have to re-learn how to read as I have. Books are your friends. Stop being their psychologist, and get back to being BFFs!

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