Reading and its rewards

Reading and its rewards

Simple joys

Friends forever: Reading can be an absorbing activity.

I could have a new bike if I read 10 classic novels and wrote reports on them. I was a malleable kid with no negotiating power, so we went to the library and made a list.

We chose Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter and The Sword in the Stone. I took Moby Dick off the shelf at home, but very quickly put it back. Then I decided to add Silas Marner by George Eliot because it was very short, and had a picture of a little girl on the front. But that was misleading, and I got bogged down, and petitioned for Little Women to count toward the list instead.

It wasn’t that I didn’t read — I read all the time. But I was indiscriminate, and my grandmother thought I was reading too many Archie comics and Trixie Belden novels about a girl detective. When I showed up at her house with The Mystery of the Midnight Marauder, my grandmother sniffed and asked if I couldn’t read something more... edifying. So my father wasn’t acting alone.

My grandmother, in her defense, grew up in a small town in North Dakota, and her father was a bank manager until the banks failed after the 1929 crash. His next job was as the business manager of a small, impoverished college in Montana, where he cut costs by boarding students in his own house, and where his daughter could go without charge.

Education had been a lucky break for her, in a time of uncertainty, and she valued it above all things. When I went to her house, she would ask me to spell “tomorrow” and “committee,” and quiz me on the difference between “lay” and “lie.”

The bike deal, in my grandmother’s opinion, would make me read better books, and it would teach me that nothing comes free, and that I had to work for what I wanted. But my friend Sarah’s father lived in Utah, and had sent her a new bike for nothing — it just showed up all shiny and beautiful in the front yard, with glittery tassels on the handlebars. That seemed like a pretty good system to me. I didn’t think about the fact that the price of her bike was an absent father.

But reading the books was easy. Writing the reports was hard, and they dragged out, unfinished. We bought the bike, but I hadn’t finished my reports yet. So the bike leaned against the wall in the entryway of our house, and I wasn’t allowed to ride it. It was royal blue, and had 10 speeds I didn’t know how to use. It was slightly smaller than an adult bike, but in all other ways utterly legitimate. It was a boy’s bike with the horizontal bar between handlebars and seat, because riding a girl’s bike was akin to riding a horse sidesaddle, and hopelessly uncool. I was uncool in enough ways; I didn’t need another.

Toward the end, my stepmother claimed that I was supposed to present my book reports to the family, but I dug in. No way was I reading those awful reports aloud, and no way were they moving the finish line. My stepmother’s involvement had been a little ambivalent anyway, as she had given me my first Trixie Belden novel and loved them herself, and she thought I read too much already, and should go outside more and play.

Finally, it was such clear agony to have the bike in the house that my haphazard reports were accepted, and it was mine.

People have asked if my family thought I would be a writer, but I don’t think they did.

People also ask if I remember the bike books. I remember the ghostly branches scraping the window in Wuthering Heights, but otherwise it’s like asking if I remember the water in a pool I swam across when I was 10. The Brontë sisters’ sentences washing over me may have done me some good, but the books themselves are like barely remembered dreams.

After the bike deal, the adults in my life must have figured they’d done their part to steer my reading, or maybe they just got distracted, and I was on my own. I read what kids read: Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Ellen Raskin’s brilliant The Westing Game. I read comic books, and the rest of the Trixie Belden novels. I read The Little Prince, and spent so much time with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths that the illustrations are still vivid in my mind.

Two or three years later, I skipped over young adult books, which at that time were all about kids hoping their divorced parents would get back together, and started taking grown-up novels off my parents’ shelves — I’d already read The Scarlet Letter, after all.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was 10, but I think that having all those books and sentences composting in my brain may have pushed me towards becoming a writer in the long run.

And meanwhile, I had the bike. We lived at the top of a long hill, at the very edge of town, and I could sail down to any friend’s house with the wind in my face, without pedalling once. In summer, I could ride to the city pool with my swimsuit tied around my arm, and bike home with wet hair. With low gears, the hill wasn’t too steep to bike up, except at the end. I didn’t need a ride anymore. I didn’t need an adult to drive me around and keep an eye on me and tell me what to do. I’d passed that crucial moment in childhood when you can start making decisions and see what it’s like. I’d earned the freedom of reading whatever I wanted, and the freedom of flying downhill on my own.