I have lots of happy childhood memories: vacations with my family, spending time with my grandmothers, hanging out with my cousins, playing kickball in the backyard, falling into a ditch full of snow after one of northern Alabama’s few blizzards. Okay, that last one isn’t a happy memory at all, and is probably the root cause of my lifelong aversion to snow, but the rest remind me of the fun I had as a kid.
But when I think about my childhood, the memory that stands out the most is sitting outside in the shade on a summer day, with my sweet tea and my lemon and my salt shaker and my book. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. According to my parents I was quite precocious (thanks Mom and Dad!) and read early, but I have no recollection of learning how to read. As far as I’m concerned, being able to read is just some great gift given to me, one I have made good use of over the years.
One of the things I do remember is going to the library. I went to the library at school, the library at church, and the public library, checking out as many books as I could as often as I could. During the summer, when the library had reading challenges for kids (“read 10 books this summer!) and you had to keep track of the books you read, I’d always be done with the challenge in about a week. I don’t even remember now if I got any kind of prize or recognition for this. I’m pretty sure I never bothered to write down the titles of all the books I read, just some of them.
I also remember going to the store every week with my allowance in hand, and having to make the big decision of what to buy. I loved music even as a child, too, so I was always torn between spending my dollar on books or 45s (note for younger readers–45s were vinyl editions of music, one song on each side). If I’m remembering correctly, I got $1/week allowance, which meant I could buy 3 records or 2 books. In my mind, I spent hours standing in front of the book and music sections, agonizing over my decision while my mom took my younger siblings with her to buy groceries. Probably not an accurate memory, since I’m sure I didn’t get to stand there for hours, but that’s how it felt.
The joy of reading the books outweighed any decision-making agony. Books took me places I’d never been, introduced me to characters who lived very different lives from me, and gave me the chance to solve mysteries, defeat evildoers, and triumph over all kinds of adversity. I read anything and everything, and never worried or cared about how “good” a book was. If it caught my interest and made me forget where I was, made me laugh or cry or gasp, scared me or thrilled me or made me frantically read faster and faster to see what happened next–if it did any of these things, it was a good book.
While I still love to read today, after years of studying and teaching literature and writing I tend to read with a more critical eye. Not in a negative way of looking for flaws, just thinking about how I would teach the book, or wondering why the author made certain choices. Sometimes my graduate school training kicks in, and I start making distinctions between “good reads” and “good literature.”
Being able to distinguish good literature from bad books is a valuable skill, and certainly there are many bad books out there, books I start reading and put down without finishing because they just aren’t any good. But sometimes I want to shut down that part of my brain, and read the way I did all those long ago summer days, sitting outside in the shade.
What are your memories of childhood reading? Do you remember learning to read? Where and when did you most enjoy reading?
And start thinking about the books you loved as a child. In the next blog entry, I’ll offer up my own list and would love to see yours.