The Education of a Close Reader, Part I

| September 13, 2010

Where does the education of a reader begin? The story of my own origins as a reader probably starts long before I was born. In a parking garage in the Bronx, perhaps, where my paternal grandfather spent most of his working days, memorizing poems (and even reading the dictionary) as he tirelessly managed the Yankee game traffic. Or perhaps across the country, in Montana, where my mother grew up in a house lined with bookshelves, inviting her to sample Faulkner, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky—the difficult, the dangerous, the risqué—when her parents weren’t looking. In my own childhood home, the literary palace was resurrected: thousands of books—shelves, piles, boxes—bookcases stretching into the dining room to accommodate an ever-expanding collection.

My parents read to me, of course. At the age of two or three, I became a close reader of Good Night Moon, when my dad read the book to me every single night for over a year, until I finally protested. Did you ever notice the framed picture of a scene from Runaway Bunny, another Margaret Wise Brown book, on the wall of the room? I did.

When I turned four, I demanded that my parents buy me—not toy trucks or action figures—but vocabulary and comprehension workbooks! Even at that age, I pursued reading with fierce, even perverse, determination—treating it not only as entertainment but also as a discipline to be mastered. I devoted myself to the exercises for a few weeks and then, when boredom set in, abandoned them.

My first real foray into writing about reading came much later, when I was nine or ten years old, and my fourth grade teacher assigned a series of book reports. Each month, the genre would shift—from biography to mystery, from science to science fiction. I wrote on the indecipherable Westing Game and on the insufferable Johnny Tremain. I wrote about Washu, the chimpanzee that learned sign language, and about Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers. The reports were six or seven pages double-spaced—that is, six or seven pages in size 18 Helvetica font, including a cover page, a title page, and a copyright page. But I was happily ignorant of the filler and the fluff: when I sealed the pages behind a glossy report cover, I took pride in the weight of my labors.

Through the book reports, I began to conceive of reading and writing as multi-step processes. In my elementary school days, when computers were still a relative luxury, I always hand-wrote the rough draft, amply crossing out and correcting as I went along, and then painstakingly typed out a second draft on the family Macintosh. When I finally finished, I printed out my work—and, in the moment of truth, handed it over to my mom to be proofread. She circled the phrases I repeated too often, marked confusing sentences, pointed out where a thought seemed incomplete. Humming happily to myself, I made the corrections and readied my report for its second trial, a reading by my father. An attorney by trade, my dad enjoyed combining my sentences with semicolons and adding the word “consequently.” He noticed unwarranted shifts in verb tense, and he encouraged me to insert words that would raise the eyebrows of any elementary school teacher: “lilliputian,” “extremities,” “penultimate.” Delighted with my dad’s additions, I corrected the essay, re-printed it and showed the completed masterpiece to my mother. But my mom disapproved of some of my dad’s innovations. She picked up her pen and began to break apart some of the enormous sentences, streamlining the diction.

Now what was I going to do? I spread out all the papers on the floor and inspected the drafts. Whom was I to believe, my mom or my dad? Should I choose the most direct sentence or the most intricately crafted one? The journalistic exposition or the legalistic equivocation? A trusty short word or a fearsome polysyllable? I read through the different versions to myself, deciding where to yield to my mom, where to defer my dad, and where to overrule both of them. A re-reader was born.

To be continued…

See: The Education of a Close Reader, Part II