Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more specific (and more critical) in his assessment of readership:
"Readers may be divided into four classes:
- Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
- Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
- Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
- Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also."
I don't remember not knowing how to read. In fact, once I broke the code, it seemed impossible not to read or try to decode a series of letters organized in the shape of a word. I do remember the enormous pleasure I got from reading as child. I devoured books (not quickly, I'm one of the s-l-o-w readers), but in great gulps. I remember reading straight through the Little House books in third grade, then moving on to other, more treacly series like the Bobbsey Twins and Sue Barton Student Nurse, just because there were so many of them. I read every biography of every famous female I could find. I lived and breathed the lives of the March sisters, furious when I finished the last Louisa May Alcott book in our school library.
By middle school, I had moved on to adult literature (there was little by way of Young Adult [YA] material back then, though I vividly remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones (later, a truly awful movie of the week starring Desi Arnaz, Jr.) and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (a "true diary" as fraught with controversy as James Frey's Million Little Pieces). Back then, the thing I loved most about books is that I could scan them for every little mention of the topic most on my mind — sex — without having to ask any adults. I remember sneaking into the stacks of the public library and reading the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon, a tawdry historical series set in 17th Century France.
In high school, I was steeped in Chaucer and Fitzgerald, and began a life-long love affair with John Irving. My family was big in car trips and reading took me all over the world while our station wagon traversed practically every square inch of the state of Michigan and most of US east of the Mississippi.
But by college, I ran out of time for fiction. I had so much school-related reading to do, and read it all so slowly, that I just couldn't squeeze in much extracurricular fiction (except for a brief tour through Harlequin romances my sophomore year, which I still regret, but those bubblegum books took even a pokey reader like me less time time to read than it took for my gum ball to lose its flavor). Rediscovering the joys of fiction after graduation was a gift.
I have one son who reads as fast as an Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduate. He literally reads whole pages in a glance — it's remarkable. My middle son claims to hate reading. Last year, he told me he was a "bad" reader. When I asked what he meant, he said he's a bad reader because he reads one word a time. I assured him that I've always read one word at a time and consider myself a very good reader. He wasn't convinced. When his English teacher told me at the beginning of the year that my son had the highest reading score in his grade, I told the boy to get over his reading phobia and embrace his word-for-word technique.
Like my son, though, I always assumed my slow reading was a liability, until I read Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. In addition to having perhaps the best name ever for a writer, Prose is also a critic and teacher, and advocates what she calls "close reading" — reading at the word level, the sentence level and the paragraph level. Suddenly, I discovered that I had been a brilliant reader all along. (For a nice 2KoP review by Wilson Knut of Reading Like a Writer, click here.)
As life has gotten busier, as I have buried myself in all the reading I must to do for parenting and work, I find that I don't indulge in fiction the way I should. I read all the time, but mostly on line these days. Like golf, fiction just takes too long, or so I tell myself. The other day I began to prepare to teach a four-week creative writing camp by making a poster board about writing. "Writers write" said rule #1. "Writers read" said rule #2. "Hypocrite" was what I wanted to write in my little teacher bio.
To avoid having to condemn myself in my summer camp bio, I started and finished the book I've been wanting to read for months. The leisurely pace and beautiful language of the writing encouraged me to read the way I read best — word-for-word, one word at a time. I read for long stretches every day until I was just about 25 pages short of the end, when I did what I always do with books I love … I set it aside, not wanting the story to end, not wanting to lose my connection with the characters. I hate the end of a good book, which may be the real reason I read as slowly as a do.
The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen. Be one of Coleridge's rare and valuable mogul diamond readers. Savor the words. Rasmussen has imbued The Bird Sisters with everything that makes for good storytelling: love and betrayal, longing and despair, devotion and sacrifice. And tornadoes, both real and metaphorical:
"After her father returned, wild-eyed and windblown, Twiss ran to him, but not as quickly as she could have. It was as if he had inadvertently told her something essential about himself, a secret she would have to keep forever: You can't count on me."
— Chapter 4, The Bird SistersIn my next post, I'll tell you about getting to know author Rebecca Rasmussen. In the meantime, let me know if and when you read The Bird Sisters. Or take a minute now and tell us how you read, fast or slow or somewhere in between. And please share your best recommendation of what should be on our summer reading lists. Just click here.