Before reading I listened. I was the eleven-year-old with scratches on her knees, perched on the armrest of my dadâ€™s tan Lazy Boy, listening to Huckleberry Finn and The Yearling. I was a late reader; a kid in the â€˜specialâ€™ reading group. But those early years when reading wasnâ€™t really mine, gave me stories in a different way, and for this I am grateful. Listening to a book is different than reading one. There is nuance and rhythm to a text read aloud. I think every author secretly wishes his or her book will be read this way: aloud, into the quiet of a room with crickets calling through the open screen, each word received by eager ears. I was such a captive audience then, unable to skip ahead when I was bored or didnâ€™t understand. I learned to stay with texts. I learned to love words, and book after book, my appetite for words grew. Eventually, when I did learn to read, I remember feeling a little bit in awe that I could just pick up a book, open it, and the entire story could be mine. Now I watch the first graders I teach start the year barely able to identify all the letters in the alphabet, leave in June sixty-pages deep in an adventure story, and Iâ€™m still a little bit in awe. I teach kids how to break words apart and reassemble them so that sentences become whole. I teach them how to keep a story map in the back pocket of their imagination, how to watch each character for signs of change, and how to delve deeply into the world of images they know to construct a new world specific to the book, but I do not really teach them how to read. The stories teach them, just as they taught me: how to read, and also how to write so that the words I type take on the shape of what matters in my life.
The first book that had this affect on me was Isabelle Illendeâ€™s memoir, Paula. I was eighteen when I read it, and living in Germany for a year before college. By then I had read and loved many books, but never had even remotely imagined writing them. Paula was my first encounter with creative nonfiction and reading it changed my understanding of what was possible, or even allowable in writing. It was the first time I had considered that my lifeâ€”right there on the train with tears streaming down my cheeks as I finished the book, surrounded by tall men in shearling hats speaking a dialect of German thick with consonantsâ€”was story. A year later, I enrolled in my first creative writing class.
Many of the authors I discovered throughout college who still matter to me, are writers who are present with their sleeves rolled up, in the middle of their stories. Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Terri Tempest Willaims, Susan Orlean, Barbara Kingsolver and Joan Diddion, are several authors whose work I have read, and re-read, marking the pages and underlining text, in the process of cultivating my own voice as a writer. Each brings a distinct perspective to their writing of life as it is happening to them in the moment. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Diddion took risks that made the hair on my neck stand up. She dared me over and over again to be more honest in my writing, and I copied sections of that book line by line, to better understand how such writing was constructed. Doing this made each comma, each period, each word, newly significant. Reading like this, through writing, allowed me to feel the meter and meaning of her prose in my hands, in my wrists, in my heartbeat.
Because listening came first, a part of me is always listening when I read. What draws me to a text might be its topic or title, but what keeps me is its tenor; the way vowels play together among words, the way meaning is made from each small parcel of lines gathered together with just the right punctuation. As a result, though I have been an avid reader of memoir and essays, nature writing, travel stories, and ethnographies, since college, my nightstand is always an eclectic a jumble of novels and poetry.
Sometimes when I walk in the woods behind my house, I realize after it is already too late that I have walked through a spiderâ€™s web spanning the seven or eight feet of path; tiny gossamer threads invisible to me until I feel them. Long after Iâ€™ve continued on, Iâ€™m still brushing away the sticky threads that linger, clinging to my cheek or hair. Reading is like this for me. A line, a character, a scene, small fragments of the prose Iâ€™ve read remain in my mind long after Iâ€™ve put the book aside. Annie Dilliardâ€™s essay â€œTotal Eclipseâ€ is like this. Though the first time I read it was nearly ten years ago, I still get caught in its imagery: I cannot imagine an eclipse without imagining hers. Countless other texts have had this affect as well. Certainly Flannery Oâ€™ Conner, William Faulkner, Sue Monk Kid, Robert Bly, Mary Oliver, and William Stafford are a few writers whose names can be found along the spines of many volumes on my bookshelves; the words and characters they have created dance up before my memory like sunspots, keeping me company, giving solace, or taking me for a wild ride.
I always have at least two books with me, (right now itâ€™s Gilead and The Year of Magical Thinking; before that, What We Ache For and The Memory Keeperâ€™s Daughter) so that Iâ€™m ready for when a few moments land back to back, as my toddler sleeps in the car, or while waiting at the dentistâ€™s office. Also because Iâ€™m a mother, and a teacher, and my time is flecked with interruptions, I read copiously Online. Being able to peruse Anne Lamottâ€™s essays at Salon.com, or David Sedarisâ€™s most recent humor at The New Yorker Online, makes me giddy. Like the orange sections offered to runners at each marathon mile mark, the essays and reviews, political commentary and prose I read Online, are moments of sheer sweetness wedged between the must-do things of daily life: email and lesson plans for the week.
Now when I try to remember what the actual process of learning to read was like I cannot put my finger on anything specific. No ah-ha moment, no instance when words clicked into place, and suddenly became story. All I can remember is that before, the words of Frog And Toad flipped about on the page like fishes, and my parents were the keepers of the wonderment contained within each book. After, the stories were mine to devour whole, and hungrily, I did. Reading is still like this for me, vital and sustaining. It has become something almost reflexive, like breathing.