On Reading as a Small Child
Mom used to like to tell this story of when I was about 7 years old (I know, because she always emphasized I was in 2nd grade) having a critical discussion and breakdown of Huckleberry Finn with one of dad’s colleagues. I think she was overstating it, and called her on it once, so she went into more detail.
We kept a bookshelf of what would now be called “young adult” and children’s literature in the hallway that lead to all of the bedrooms in the house I grew up in. We were allowed to pick up and leaf through pretty much anything (although mom tended to remind us to be careful with reference books and religious books, which I mostly leafed through because of the way they smelled), but that shelf was ours, and we could pull and replace without checking to make sure mom and dad didn’t want to read the thing we wanted. (General practice for other shelves in the house.)
I had apparently been working through a section that I thought of as classics. I probably had heard mom call them that. They included Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hans Brinker, the entire Narnia series, and several others (I want to say the Peppers were in there, but I can’t recall just now). Some of them had matching bindings, and had been given to us by a nice lady across the street who had actual tea in tea cups in the afternoons. Some of them were library resells (that mom probably got for a few cents) and some of them were older and probably mom had owned them or bought them when we were babies because she remembered liking them.
Dad’s colleague was over because either he was visiting, or had been supposed to meet dad for lunch and he was late. It’s hard to tell, and mom never explained, but he noticed I was curled up in an armchair reading Huck Finn and asked mom if she was sure it was appropriate for my age. She remembered laughing and waving him off, noting that I probably wasn’t really grasping it all. So he asked if he could talk to me about it over lunch, when she called me in.
I don’t remember the specific discussion. I remember talking to him. I remember he was Dr Wilson at daddy’s work, but we were allowed to call him Mr Wilson at home, and they called him Nathan. We talked to lots of dad’s fellow professors and students and didn’t really think much about it on a day to day basis. Some were nice and could be coaxed into playing with us, and some were less nice and just interested in cards, or talking about work, or other boring grown-up things. Nathan was sort of a balance between the two.
Apparently, he asked some basic questions – how far was I into the book (about halfway), what did I think of Huck (he gets into trouble a lot) and Jim (he worries a lot, but that makes sense) and so on. According to my mother, it started getting much more specific and detailed and I carried on an intelligent discussion of the book. And she realized that not only was I aware of the racism, but that I was straddling the line between Huck and Jim in that I realized it was “life” as they saw it and thus “normal” to them, but I also thought it was stupid, and what the heck was that about? According to her, by the end of lunch, she felt she’d witnessed a college level (she often said graduate, at which point I’d glare at her, and she’d point out “Nathan taught master’s level classes!”) dissection of the book. …And perhaps she ought to pay more attention to what I was reading.
I still think she exaggerated. On the other hand, my reading comprehension was good enough that I rarely read the book again completely except for fun. I’d have it in high school and college level classes and rarely bother reading it for the class, just write papers by memory with occasional flipping of pages until I found the bit I wanted to quote so that I could accurately. I still own my college copy, actually, and have read it since although not in a long time.
I think that the freedom to read whatever I wanted is a large part of why I absorb the written word more easily than the heard word, and probably why I can read relatively quickly. I have had a lot of practice. We read everything from Mother Goose to Seuss to the above listed books and occasionally would pull out dad’s reference books on theater, or art, or read through the inserts in the large LP records. We weren’t terribly consistent perhaps, but having that access at an early age (and a mother who was very willing to drag us to the library over the summer breaks) was wonderful.