WHAT READING CAN DO

“YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A READER. THEY READ EVERY WORD ON THE MENU, EVEN WHEN THEY ALREADY KNOW WHAT THEY WANT.” My Mother, when she was almost 90.

I do not remember a time when I didn’t have a book spinning in my head. Reading forced me to decide whether I wanted to be like the people in the books I read. That aspect of reading became more important when Holocaust literature started to become available in the early 1950’s. I still weep for Elie Weisel’s losses and marvel at his survival.

My youngest child (who was born when I was almost 46) and I were discussing a talk she had heard by an author who was a holocaust survivor when I mentioned that I had been in my early teens when I began reading books on the subject. She looked surprised and indicated she had begun reading those books when she was nine or ten. Imagine her shock when I reminded her that when I was that age the war was barely over and the books were not yet written. World War II was ancient history to all of my children.

There were so many times that books challenged me and made me decide what actions I would not take part in, or which ones I wanted to emulate. Sometimes I think of life as a continual “reinvention” of one’s self. The act of reading internalizes the quest to change like nothing else. Asking questions and deciding how one should act is a process of surprising growth and most of the thought involved is inside “where the meanings are” (per Emily Dickinson).

I remember a chance thing when I was a high school sophomore in a World History class. The instructor began the class by telling us what we didn’t know about history. Then he described a city where the ruler had gathered up scrolls, clay tablets, cuneiform writings and books from all over the known world and established the greatest library the world had ever seen. The teacher said he knew no one in the class could even tell him the name of that city. Instantly without even thinking I said, “Alexandria.” The teacher’s face was so shocked as he stared at me. I was also shocked because I was normally shy and hated attention being drawn to me. I honestly could not remember how I knew about the great library at Alexandria and can only think I must have read about it in The Book of Knowledge years before that class. If the teacher had asked me one real question about the city or the library I don’t think I could have answered it.  The only thing I could have said was that the library was destroyed almost completely some time after the death of the ruler (Alexander the Great).

Of course I became the “teacher’s pet”, and also became known as a “brain.” There are times when a reputation has to be maintained with great effort. I worked so hard in that class so I would not be exposed as the dummy I actually felt like. I don’t think I could have done anything wrong in the eyes of the teacher in that class, and I know word got around to a lot of the other teachers. I found myself putting more effort into every class I had.

One of my aunts (the wealthy one) was telling my mother how she paid her children $25 for each A they got, $20 for each B, and $10 for each C. I was around the corner listening and feeling sad because we didn’t have that kind of money. After a moment my mother said, “If we did that with Anniel we’d go broke on one report card.”

She had never said a word to me about my grades so I hadn’t known she was proud of me. Her words were a better reward than any money.

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