I’m Grateful for My ABC’s
Some time ago in a bookshop I passed by a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was both horrified and intimidated by the sheer size of it. I had heard that it is a classic and that some people have read it in its entirety.
For many years, the act of reading has both delighted and repulsed me. I have fond memories of being read to Roald Dahl’s books Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and, best of all, The Witches. But I also have memories of being handed stacks of school textbooks, the words of which were to be consumed by my mind only towards a goal. Suddenly, reading was about digesting chapters and preparing for tests. Only now can I see that to be able to read is a gift — even if you cannot finish War and Peace.
I don’t recall a single moment of learning to read. I simply remember singing the alphabet, which had somehow turned into words on a page that I was able to read with ease. I had a strong reading ability and often grew impatient with other children who could not read as fast as I did. Yes, I was that kid who’d be correcting mispronunciations out loud.
Eventually, the time came to begin solitary reading, as we had outgrown being read to. There was the introduction to something called a library which had its contents ordered by the Dewey Decimal System. There were instructions on how to take out books, and serious threats of punishment for learners who failed to return books on time.
In an instant I had forgotten the warnings and went in search of a “good book”. What “a good book” actually means is different for all of us. For the children in my class it was the floating staircases of Hogwarts, somebody called Artemis Fowl, or anything by Enid Blyton. For me, it was Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng. To my surprise, the book had no pictures. This pained me. I wanted to see the characters. I suppose this is the dining room of literature in which I had to learn to take my seat and be fed. It is the challenge for every writer to tell and for every reader to be told.
Reading a chore and joy
In time the act of reading transitioned from entering into an adventure to demonstrations of studiousness. It was no longer fun, to put it bluntly. There were maps to be read, diagrams to be labelled, and the complex webs we found in history to be detangled.
So I was grateful for the rare times I could be a pirate seeking treasure on an island, or a spectator to the rise of dictators through the lens of animals on a farm. I probably should have read more Shakespeare. And maybe, just maybe, I will one day read Lord of the Rings, even though the idea of Hobbits and a place called “Middle Earth” does not sound appealing to me yet.
I lament that I never had the time to celebrate my achievement of learning how to read. How many people are not afforded the gift of literacy? And how many people aren’t put off from reading by discouraging and impatient teachers?
We, who are lucky enough to know how to read and write, must not take this gift for granted. And as people of faith, we must use it to peel away the layers of Sacred Scripture. We must journey along with St Augustine who lays bare his confessions. We must accompany Dante who, led by Virgil, sees the torments of the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the joys of the Paradiso.
And, you may ask, what will I do now? Well, having recovered from years of reading for the sake of preparing for exams, I think I am open to the challenge of writing my own books. I want to write stories for children, for grown-ups and everyone in between.
I am grateful for the teachers and the books that formed me and the journey that began with ABC.
This article was published in the March issue of the Southern Cross magazine
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