The Simple Joy of Reading

What I wrote: We were the only family in town with a library in the house. When the carpenter put up all the shelves in the combination dining room/library/office for my Dad, he asked, “You opening up a grocery story or what?” When we told him it was for the books, he grunted and said, “Past the Bible and the Sears catalog, don’t have much use for them myself.”

The room was soon filled with books, top to bottom. I learned to read early, and

Reductive art: graphite, eraser on pastel paper. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.

Reductive art: graphite, eraser on pastel paper. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.

after I mastered the comics in the newspaper, and the Betsey McCall section of my mother’s McCall’s magazine, I began to read National Geographic.

One day, I considered all the books in our library and asked my father if I could read one. (It wold not have occurred to me to simply take a book without asking. Different times, very different upbringing.) My father told me, kindly, that I wouldn’t understand them.

“Why not?” I asked. “I can read English.”
My father smiled and handed me a physics book. “Read this, then,” he said.
I worked through the introduction, getting the words right, but with no idea about the ideas in the book. At 5 years, physics isn’t a familiar concept.

I remember the mix of awe, anger and concern that I could not grasp the material. It was English. I knew how to read English. Why couldn’t I understand this English?

Slowly I came to understand the difference between reading and comprehension; between seeing and knowing. The complex relationship between seeing words and understanding concepts came slowly to me, but I began to read more, eager for the ability to link words to concepts.

There are still many books I don’t understand, and many I don’t try to understand, but the joy and mystery of reading can fill me with a joy that few other things can reach. I hope the love of reading doesn’t fade away, replaced by electronic pastimes. Reading was my comfort, excitement and cure for loneliness. It still is.

What is your first memory of reading?

Quinn McDonald is pretty sure that people who are good writers also love to read.


38 thoughts on “The Simple Joy of Reading

  1. Reading is something that has always been a part of me. I do not remember when exactly I began to read, but I remember reading everything from Dick and Jane, to Golden Books, to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, to the three books I am currently reading. I have one on my kindle, one on my iPad and one real, honest to goodness book. I love being able to take books with me without having to have as much bulk, so my kindle is wonderful. BUT I love the feel and smell of a real book in my hands, so always have one at the ready. I have piles of books and shelves overflowing with books two layers deep. I have over 1,000 books in my house at last count and I have added many more to them. When I travel I love that my kindle can carry multiple books with out the bulk and the weight, but I also love holding a real book. I read all kinds of things from mysteries to young adult literature, as I am retired teacher who still subs, cookbooks, quilting books, nonfiction, art books, self-help books, even books on how to do things that I may never do but that I want to learn about. I have read books in German, though my German is very rusty and would require much searching through the dictionary to do today. If there is a book I will at least peruse it, if not read it cover to cover. I also read tons of magazines and one thing I love about being retired is that I have more time to read. Reading is a daily essential for me. I always have a book and some type of hand work in my bag ready for anything, and anytime I have to wait. I only wish I could read in a moving vehicle, but then that is when books on tape/CD/ or iPod come in handy. 🙂 Reading is life.
    Quinn I love reading your blog, as well.

  2. Great topic. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s stories!

    Movies back-in-the-day used to start with a paragraph or so setting the scene. So that was my incentive to learn to read. My brother and I would go to the movies a lot since a movie house was in walking distance of our home. We did so much alone when we were just little ones, including taking buses, that it amazes me now.

    I do not know how old I was but do know I was reading by the time I went to kindergarten and I loved the Golden Book series. I would save my allowance until I could afford to purchase them. I learned to read by memorizing words in comic books since my family did not have books, and to this day I do not understand the concept of phonetics.

    I, too, used to play hooky to stay home and read because my mother thought if I had time to read, I could be doing chores. I wonder if a person is born with a desire to read? I was surrounded by people that did not read, and still I had a thirst for it.

    I loved the library and still do. I have a distinct memory of trying to check out Dante’s Inferno when I was a child and the librarian would not let me because I was too young. Of course this made me want to read it all the more. (Laughing here). Do libraries still have a rule that children cannot check out adult books?

    • At my library, kids can check out books from the adult section if they have an adult with them, with an adult card. You clearly were a dedicated reader. I learned phonics and can’t image memorizing words. Funny. I love my library. I’m even willing to pay for my library card, which I must now renew every five years and pay a hefty price for. Worth it!

  3. I don’t remember learning to read, I was 3 or 4 at the time. But one of my favorite reading memories was devouring mysteries by flashlight under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep. It was an escape into another world, and I found it hard to close the book until I finished. I thought I was so smart, getting away with this. Turns out, my mother always knew I was reading and didn’t care as long as she was getting some quiet time at the end of the day. I could have saved a lot of batteries if I had known…

  4. My first memory is how I learned to read English picture books given to me
    by our American friends who were living in Germany then. I remember Sally Dick and Jane I think and as far as I know they were reading books for first graders .Must have been 4 or 5 yrs old. English has always my favorite subject 😉 – my first German children´s book was written in cursive but don´t remember the title. I tend to say that my first love were books but if I look closely it might also have been an old dog which was really dear to me.
    Thanks for bringing back precious moments.

    • Oh, I remember Dick and Jane and the cat, Puff. Yes, they were early readers. My first German book was the pretty scary Struwwelpeter and had a kid with long nails and wild hair on the cover. But I’d read it over and over.

  5. Hello All!
    I, too have memories of reading books beyond my comprehension. But the book I remember the most was an autobiography of “Abe, the Newsboy”. At eleven we moved into my grandparents old house, fully furnished with a shelf full of old books. I picked up a book that smelled old and must have been four inches thick and began reading it. At first it wasn’t so interesting but I was never one not to finish what I started. I read the book all the way through. I’ve often thought I should read the book again now as an adult, with an adult perspective.
    Recently I wrestled with myself about getting my grand daughter an electronic book. There’s something about just holding a book, the paper, a bookmark that shows how far into it you’ve read. Should I read slower to make it last or faster and get it to the end? After much consideration, I got her the electronic book. Like many children these days she is very mobile, going back and forth between one home and another for visitations. It makes sense for her to have it.
    When she opened the gift just yesterday, with a gift card for buying books – she was thankful but didn’t have the same kind of joy I see when she opens a tangible, paper crafted book. I was delighted with her reaction. She loves books….At thirteen she has a bookshelf of treasured books that she won’t give up.
    She will have bookshelves overflowing in her home just like her Nana.
    That makes me smile.

  6. I’ve loved to read ever since I was very young. Truthfully, I had a terrible time learning how to read, likely because of some damage to my eyes and my brain from having had a major bout of meningitis when I was 5. Kind nurses, my parents and even the occasional doctor would read to me whilst I was in the hospital bed, paralyzed. I think it had to be then that I realized the magic in books, that they could transport you from a sterile environment where everyone wore masks to a field of flowers or to joining some animals for a ride on a train.
    Mum worked with me when I entered grade one to master my phonics lessons and drilled me on recognizing words. The drills were a daily event and I would also practise reading from the old fashioned readers that were issued to each student. Finally, the words started to make sense and letters seemed to appear in the correct order that allowed me to progress through the group of problem readers to the group that was mastering the lessons at an acceptable pace.
    Sadly, Mum died the summer after I had finished grade one. It was a lonely time and I found comfort in my books. My godmother took me to the local library where I got my first library card. This was my entry into the world of books of my own choosing. I worked my way through Nancy Drew’s adventures, the Hardy Boys and a few other series intended for younger readers. By the time I was 10, I had “borrowed” my brother’s library card for the adult section of the library and found so many more books that took me on travels around the world, taught me about other cultures and in general, took me out of my solitary world to one where life was so much more exciting.
    I still read voraciously. But, my interests have changed dramatically. I love books on art techniques, cookbooks, but fiction is still big on my list as evidenced by the pile of books on my bedside table. I buy second hand books from library sales of books taken from their shelves. Some are for reading, others are for making into art pieces. Right now, I am putting gesso on the pages of what was a children’s book, its thick pages taking the gesso solution nicely. Whilst waiting for the substance to dry, I am reading a book entitled “Party of One.” A book about a loner and their travels through life. Funny how this book found its way into my shopping bag. I am a loner even though I try to wade my way through conversations with others at gatherings. But, the truth is, I really enjoy my time alone, curled up with a good book and a pot of tea. I alternate between reading and studio time, trying to make the most of every day. I would like to join others in their conversations, their daily trips to the coffee shop, but I hesitate. I don’t feel a part of this group, they make me uncomfortable because they don’t understand my need for quiet, the time I spend in the studio or how I can become so enthralled with a book that it becomes a part of my life during the time that I am reading it.
    Life goes on for this party of one and I will continue with my love of books and my solitary time in my studio. I find it easier to reach out and chat with people online, people that I haven’t met, but with whom I feel a strong connection. The written word has kept me from feeling terribly alone for many years and I could never give up reading anymore than I could give up splashing gesso and paints on canvases. I guess reading is my life. It could be much worse when I look at it from other views and aspects. I’m reasonably happy, so I won’t complain about being alone so much of the time. Because the truth is, as long as I am involved in a good book, the characters become an extension of my own family for a period of time. Maybe not the best way to live one’s life, but it could be much worse.

    • Reading does so many wonderful things–it’s a comfort, it’s an escape, it’s entertainment. You have a touching and heart-warming story and you told it so well. And telling stories come from reading a lot.

  7. I feel fortunate that I grew up with a mother who treasured reading and took us to our local library every week. My sister and I would come home with stacks of books. But one of my early memories involves wanting to start reading the “big kid” books , instead of the flat picture books I always got. I remember that one book on a shelf too high for me to reach just tantalized me. Whether it was the color of the spine, or the title… I remember bringing my mom over to the shelf to ask her to read it for me, and my agony as she looked at the book to decide whether she thought I was old enough to read it. She finally handed it to me and I felt like I’d graduated to a whole new world! The book was called Red Sails by Betty Cavannah, and I remember the plot involved a young teenager in a seacoast community wanting her own sailboat so her parents got her one with red sails so they could always spot her out on the water, and she was embarrassed. I remember how reading such a “sophisticated” book made me feel so cool!

  8. Reading has always been and still is a central activity in my everyday life. In Fact, my dream last night was about being at the Missoula Library for some kind of a community meeting in the big meeting room and I had picked up my usual 6-10 requested books at the circulation desk and put them in my canvas library bag. The dream was a series of conversations with several different people about books we had all been reading or read recently. There was included a discussion of some writing being published by some gathered there. Books, words, information, fantasy, solace and delight in holding them and pulling their story in to my center.
    Loved your story today and smiled broadly as I learned of your early reading experiences.

  9. I don’t remember learning to read either, just that I always did. I did a research paper for a class once on early literacy and asked my sister if she knew. She told me that I learned to read before I was 4 and that I would take her school books from her bag as soon as she got home and hide in the closet, under the bed, or under the sink and pretend to do her home work. She almost flunked 1st grade because I never let her do her homework.
    I always had books, it used to drive my mom nuts with how quickly I read. She would go to our towns used book store and buy a brown paper bag full of 10 cent books and I would have them all read in a week and tell her I was ready for more. Once in a while she would take me with her, but I think she preferred going alone because I would stop and read the books in the store. I always kept my favorite ones out of the bag when I gave it back to her so she never had the same number to trade back in for the next bag full.
    I now work in a library and am surrounded by books every day. I have the joy of being able to choose the books that are on the shelves and sometimes have to stop myself from taking them all home.
    Thank you for your posts, the are refreshing to read and I always learn something from them.

  10. AMEN TO THAT,QUINN!! our house is full of books, and the usual question is, have you read them all? I may not have, but hubby certainly has. A house without books is like a body without a soul (old tried and true saying!!) a real estate agent once told me I had to remove the books from the bookcases and put in ornaments, as folks ‘are intimidated by books’ HUH??

  11. The Betsy McCall section of the magazine was BIG in our family – with four girls! Thanks for reminding me. Mom was, and at 92 still is, a magazine reader. We didn’t have TV and Dad religiously read the St. Paul Pioneer Press every night after work, as we unlaced his carpenter boots and watched him take a quick nap in his big chair before dinner. As we grew up ,and were out of the home, he would send us clippings and comics from that paper, along with his xxoo, Dad. But, wow, the power of reading! In 1981 the neighbor lady, Louella, gave my two-year old son an old Rand McNally Junior Elf book entitled, Timmy Mouse. Written in 1951, the year I was born, I remembered that crazy book! It was scary (Mom and Dad left the mouse hole and didn’t come back), it was sweet (big brother took such good care of his little baby sister), it was resourceful (he had to find them a new home) and it had a happy ending (Mom and Dad made it back). The umbrella, apple tree and daisy were just as I remembered them. I also have learned how fun it is to reread books at different ages and how you process it so differently and find new gems in a book you thought you had thoroughly understood. Reading goes deep!

  12. This is a very interesting concept for me, as I do not remember NOT being able to read. From birth I was in church, and reading along as songs were sung… So words came to me via music and sound… And I have been a bookworm since then! The library is always one of the first places I check out when I move to a new town!

  13. Reading has always been part of my life. I learned to read quite young. I don’t recall exactly when, but I know when I started kindergarden I already knew how to read. I loved books and would devour anything with writing on it. I would spend hours a day reading. In fact I would often get in trouble for reading so much (silly, right?) because I wouldn’t take the time to do anything else. My parents thought I needed to go outside and play more often and have more friends. But books were my best friends.

    One thing I do remember is that I loved school. I know a lot of kids fake being sick because they don’t like school and want to stay home. I never really wanted to miss school. But I would occasionally fake being sick so I could stay home and read my books. 🙂

    I used to have a lot of books in my home, but after moving them all too many times, I decided to get rid of most of them. I have a few books here, I have my Kindle for traveling, and I can visit the library or the used book store whenever I want to find more books. Don’t get me wrong, I still love buying books and gravitate toward them in any store, but I have less than I used to have. But I can’t imagine not being able to read.

  14. I learned to read and write when I was four. I stayed with my grandmother and wrote to my Mom who was 50 miles away where my Dad was going to college on the GI bill. I used to take a book and climb to the top of the huge maple trees in our front yard and stay there for hours and escape all the chores anyone wanted me to engage in.They never thought to look 80 feet in the air. My grandfather’s books were under lock and key and I also had to ask to read one. And I could only open the least amount to be able to see the page because I wasn’t to break the binding! In college I found it very hard to underline or make any mark in a BOOK! How forbidden. How destructive. The simple availability of books now compared to then is mindboggling. For years starting at my fourth grade my Mom would pick up 7 books at the library on Monday and bring them home for me and repeat the next Monday. She took the younger children to the next town (15 miles away) to go to school because they had better schools there and they had a great library. I loved the Black Stallion series and Nancy Drew. Unfortunately my younger sister got caught in the years they taught reading by sight instead of phonics and never really learned to read well until she took remedial reading in college. I have six large bookcases in my house and sometimes go to the library or the book store just to breathe the smell of books. I have to read anything in sight even cereal boxes. And I have the same reaction as you, Quinn, to misused words and typos. What I want to know is: how do you get to the recovering stage of perfectionism? I’m not there yet and it annoys a lot of people ’cause I can’t keep it to myself..

  15. I wanted to learn how to read so bad I coldn’t wait tostart to school . when the big day cameI In 1954 I was not the brightest crayon in the box., I almost cried with happy.. Then it ended almost cried with sad,because I still didn’t know how to read……I though it would be instantaneous!!!!!

  16. I seem to have a few memories from before I could talk, but I don’t remember not knowing how to read. I must have learned to read while my mom read bedtime stories to me. She used to say (with some indignation) that one night I told her “I can read that myself”. I think she said I was about three. When I went to nursery school I could read a little; I remember getting in trouble because I didn’t want to sit and be read to. I got some major cred in kindergarten (probably around Halloween) because I could spell “candy” –a FIVE LETTER WORD! I never particularly liked picture books; my early favorites were the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and I still quote them all the time.

  17. I can’t actually remember learning to read, though my Mum says I had all my favourites memorized at a very young age. I do remember being in year 1 and discovering the library…I was so astonished by the idea that they would let you take the books home for free 😉 My first favourite was “Where the Wild Things Are”…I took it out so many times the Librarian had to explain that other people might also want to read that book and that I should take out others. I would go into the library every lunch time and whenever it was in I would read it a few times and then put it back. Now I’m 41 and on my 4th copy…I am forever giving it to all the little kids I know. I can’t imagine my life without books…I have not yet made the move to electronic books, but I do like my magazines in that format.

  18. “See Spot run.” I remember those first grade books. I remember getting in trouble at school for ‘reading ahead’ when we were taking turns reading out loud. I remember Scholastic books my mom ordered when those little flyers for the Arrow Book Club were handed out in class. I remember sitting on the living room floor being completely unaware of my surroundings because I was inside the pages of a book.

    My favorite childhood book was Helen Keller’s Teacher, along with the series of Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, Ramona the Pest and so many more. I still love to read, both fiction and non-fiction.

  19. I could not read until I was eight, I tried to make sense of the shapes and turn them into words but people thought I was lazy. When the penny dropped and I could read I was never without a book, these days I do not read enough. I love my Kindle loaded with a French dictionary to help me learn to read French books! I try to read your blog everyday thank you for posting.

  20. Reading was, and can still be, a great escape. A way to be somewhere else even when you’re right in the room. I used to take a book and when I was very young (7 or 8) make a hiding place in top of the wardrobe or in the airing cupboard. Later, I found I could sit right in the room and still take myself out of it into the pages of a book.

    Much scoffed at now, Enid Blyton was an early favourite. I’d get the bus into town with my pocket money, buy a book, and often have it half finished on the bus home!!

    Then I discovered the joy of libraries. I started in the children’s section, but by 14 was browsing the adult shelves, and stumbling upon all sorts of both fiction and non fiction. I still love the library and the excitement of findings new gems. Recently I stumbled across ” Twenty contemporary New Zealand poets”. And a norwegian novelist, Anne Holt.
    I read widely and deeply. I own way too many books, but try now to pass on the ones I’ve enjoyed.

    My son bought me a Kindle for my birthday two weeks ago. I haven’t yet taken it out of its box. This will be a new reading relationship, and I’m approach

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