Read Only; or, How I Came to Be a Reader

I read a lovely essay in the anthology Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. In “The Melbourne Train,” William J. Mitchell wrote that it was while reading signs from on board a train that he realized he knew how to read, and he came to think of writing as a train-like process, steaming forward aboard verbs and nouns, occasionally catching an adjective or taking a side cut to a textual aside. My first recollection of reading was in a book, a Golden Book, their bright, sprightly-lit illustrations, the words big and pleasing. And the golden binding with mottling. WAS it gold, I wondered?

I don’t remember any particular story in the succession of duckies and bunnies and flowers. Just the quiet satisfaction of turned pages and the easy rolling out of some simple plot, any slight trouble readily resolved, but engrossing nevertheless. Sometimes tucked under the arm of my mother, who read aloud to me with a voice like fresh-baked Sunday cake, or sometimes tucked alone in a cushy chair, I was one with the reading. Absented from whatever the real world offered — the boredom of adult Sunday afternoon naps or my father’s post-work sleep or the tensions of a house of secrets and fear, or the mysterious comings and goings of my teenage siblings — I could rest easy in books, the hard cardboard cover sturdy on my knees, the loll of slim pages.

I never thought to write them. I may have thought to be a bunny or to be the child discovering the clutch of eggs, but of the god-like author I was blissfully unaware. Nor of publishing houses, contracts, paper stock, ink bleeds, and all the arcane worlds that undergirded the Golden treasury. I didn’t come to writing until my late 20s, even though friends who enjoyed my letters and notes and love of extravagant vocabulary often told me I should be a writer. I feared writing might destroy the magic, perhaps, of being a reader, safe and warm, gold in my hands.

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