Appreciating the gift of reading

09/23/2010 12:00 AM |

Reading is actually some kind of miracle. I am watching one of my grandsons in the process of learning how to do it all by himself and I am awed. Most of us have probably forgotten the moment when it all clicked into place, because it isn’t really one big moment, it’s a lot of little moments, all adding up together.

We are reading the Bob Books, an early-learning series with three-letter words. The characters named Dot, Mac, Mat and Sam interact with hats, cats, mats, bags and dogs. The first challenge is to make the letter sounds and then run them together into a recognizable word. The second is to remember the sound from the beginning of the word when you are looking at the end of it. Plus you have to start on the top left and move to the right. It’s all pretty arbitrary and whimsical.

Nobody is born being able to read. It is a lengthy process during which certain synapses are connecting, certain parts of the brain lighting up. The school year has started up and this very important work is going on right now in the classrooms, the teachers and students engaged in this enormous work of achieving literacy. We should all cross our fingers and send good karmic energy toward all those classrooms and libraries where the work is being done, the miracle happening.

I have also had the experience of knowing two older people who had minor strokes that left them unable to read. Both of these people recovered well in many other aspects, hale and hearty and vital as ever and just as intelligent, but inexplicably unable to decipher the written word any more. The brain connections formed when they were children learning to read are just gone, unraveled, useless. They are back to that preliterate stage in which words are just meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. That is truly frustrating for college educated, professional people who have always assumed their ability to read would stay with them even in old age and illness.

I think we all tend to assume we will hold on to this skill in our old age, but I have been working with older people in the community and I am beginning to see how old age, pain, loss of visual acuity and even arthritic hands can all interfere with people’s enjoyment of reading. Some are able to transfer their interest in literature to listening to books, but for some others, hearing may be a problem or they just don’t enjoy listening to books. I have also watched as some older people started feeling that a book they were reading, say for a book discussion group, was not of their generation, not interesting to them, had nothing to say to them. When someone dislikes all the books they read for one reason or another, the enjoyment of reading diminishes further.

This miracle of being literate is something we shouldn’t take for granted, and it may not last forever. Don’t wait too long to read the books you want to read, because who knows if you’ll be able to? Thank your parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, librarians and favorite authors for the parts they played in making you a book lover. Don’t forget to read to children whenever you have the opportunity. Wherever they are in the process of deciphering meaning from squiggles, the voice of a grown-up reading to them is an integral piece of that puzzle. Be part of the miracle.


Meanwhile, everybody is rushing to read Jonathan Franzen’s new book, ‘Freedom,’ and he is doing all the radio talk shows. He actually sounds nicer and more intelligent and interesting than I thought he would from my aborted reading of his last big novel, “The Corrections,” which I actually hated enough to not finish. I hardly ever do that. I suppose I ought to take a deep breath, abandon my prejudices and dive in, willing myself to be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps “Freedom” is “a masterpiece of American fiction…,” which is what the reviewer Sam Tanenhaus said on the front page of the Aug. 29 New York Times Book Review section.

At the end of his review he says, “Like all great novels, ‘Freedom’ does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.” Wow. It would be a shame to miss something like that and besides, what if my not liking it is a sign that I’ve started on the downward literacy curve? No, no, a thousand times, no. I will try again, just like the millions of 5- and 6-year-olds who are busily trying to make sense of the written word.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.