The Truth About My Reading
I didn't get my Composition and Literature teacher at Montclair State College at all. A crusty old man with a dour disposition, Mr. Smith always seemed angry and rude. He appropriately intimidated freshmen, even me, an English major, who found this common core course beneath my dignity. Frankly, as a graduate of Highland Park High School, and a survivor of Mrs. Yanowitz's Senior Honors English class, I had an over-rated opinion of my abilities, as do many freshmen.
Mr. Smith's first assignment was to write an essay entitled “The Truth About My Reading.” I don't remember what I said in the essay, but I got the highest grade in the class, a C+. Of course, I was insulted by the grade because my grammar, punctuation, spelling, and compositional development were impeccable. I even gaged the margins on my typewritten essay right and didn't have to retype it three times to get it done correctly. What I didn't realize in the fall of 1967 was that the purpose of Comp and Lit I was to bring freshmen down to earth regarding our pretentious notions of our abilities and quality of our reasoning skills.
So now, fifty years after enduring Mr. Smith, that irascible bastard, and writing an essay on “the truth about my reading,” I have a few insights that I could have used with the assignment back then.
For students of my generation, the purpose of our half-day kindergarten was to help us to develop social skills. Reading instruction began in the first grade. On Day 1 of that grade, Mrs. Kuyper, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mary Martin in Peter Pan and wore crystal beads that made her sparkle like a princess, divided the class into three reading groups: the Fairies, the Bluebirds, and the Brownies.
Although we only six years old, we were astute enough to figure out that the Fairies were expected to be the best readers in the class, the Bluebirds, which was the bulk of the class, were the mediocre students, and the Brownies were the class dummies. I was mortified to be a Bluebird. My best friend, Betsy, was a Fairy, and I hated that we weren't in the same group. I did not understand on what basis these groups had been created, but I understood enough to know that I had been pegged as a middle of the road student at the age of six.
And did I truly think about this in the first grade? Yes, I know that I did. The memory is as bitter to me today as it was then.
Nevertheless, whoever had made me a Bluebird hadn't figured on one thing. From the moment that I learned the alphabet, I loved to read. Quickly I proved myself to be a voracious learner, and I accomplished something that proved to be even more astounding than being a Fairy from the start. I MOVED UP! Moving up was very hard work because I had to complete the Bluebird reading assignments while sitting with the Fairies at the same time to catch up with them. Somebody had obviously MADE A MISTAKE! And thus, I transcended to beeing a Fairy!
When I was in the second grade my mother took me to the township library and helped me to get a library card. I took out two Nancy Drew mysteries, read them both in one night, and demanded that my mother take me back to the library the next day. I quickly devoured the Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twin series, and moved to classics like Black Beauty and Robinson Crusoe. Reading became as essential to me as eating, watching The Mickey Mouse Club, or playing with my friends. Early on I announced to my family that I intended to become a writer, and never once wavered from that goal throughout my life.
Aside from daily jaunts to the library and ruining my vision by reading by the hall light until late at night, my father, an avid reader himself, signed me up for a children's book club. Each month I received two of the All About books, which Dad wrapped carefully in plastic covers, as he did his Book of the Month Club offerings. I also received Hi-Lights Magazine as well.
Each night as Dad washed the dishes and I dried them, he would ask me about what I had learned in history class that day and what I was reading. One evening he escorted me into the living room, the site of his immense personal library. Young adult fiction did not exist as a genre yet, and Dad announced that it was time for me to move onto adult fiction. The first book that we chose together was The Last Survivor, a novel about Custer's last stand. (By the way, the final survivor was Custer's horse, a very touching moment in the story's last moments).
That novel whetted my appetite for historical fiction, and I quickly became acquainted with the works of Irwin Shaw, Irving Stone, James Michener, and Herman Wouk (author of my two favorite books of all time, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). From these great authors I learned about Mary Todd Lincoln, Rachel Jackson, Michelangelo and many other great historical figures. Then I read Gone with the Wind and met Scarlett O'Hara whose determined attitude toward life provided an excellent early role model for strong women.
Today's best selling authors do not have the writing talent that the novelists of the mid-twentieth century had. Or, maybe they do, but with the fast pace of society today we don't have time to relish 800 page tomes like Michener and Wouk created. Characters, plots, themes today are often formulaic, and it's hard to find “literature” among the muck that is sold for $30 a pop.
When I look back to Mr. Smith's assignment “The Truth About My Reading,” I have come to acknowledge that it was a terrible assignment for college freshman. A crashing bore. I couldn't relate. He should have asked for our opinions on the war in Vietnam, or segregation, or the assassination of JFK. We had lots of thoughts on those issues, but the truth about my reading? B-O-R-I-N-G at 18; fascinating to look back on now.
I thank you for indulging me in this week's exercise in reminiscence, and if any of you is so inclined, I would love to have you write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share the truth about YOUR reading. Have a great week!