For most, reading is a pleasurable skill that is acquired almost imperceptibly. I’ve heard it’s like waking up one morning suddenly knowing how to make sense of the jumble of letters on a page, almost effortlessly, without even having to move your lips. At least that’s what I’ve heard. It’s not like that for me. I’ve struggled with this mysterious process ever since I carried my PB&J’s to school in wax paper. I was the kid who couldn’t keep up. For a tenured professor, that’s difficult to admit. Thankfully, one of the most profound gifts of my education or life experience (I’m not sure which—perhaps both) is a more relaxed attitude toward my own ignorance, a big relief since it’s not easily hidden anyway. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate both the receding horizon of real knowing and the freedom in telling the truth.
As a first generation college graduate four decades ago, I was impressed by how far I had ventured from a tiny shotgun house in Dock Junction, Georgia, especially as a poor reader. Although my test scores rose and fell like a Six Flags roller coaster, I thought I had pulled a fast one on the academy. I got through college without reading a single book. I had disguised my disability with a memory for detail sharpened on baseball card statistics and the colorful pictures in “Classics Illustrated.” I memorized books and authors and could even cite the broad outlines of War and Peace or the Red Badge of Courage, but I was an imposter; I never actually read them. Moving one letter at a time, it would have taken a lifetime to slog through Hemingway’s short, but powerful Old Man and the Sea; besides there was always “the movie.” Even now, I don’t think of it as graduating so much as surviving college.
As a non-reader, the notion of silent reading was odd to me. After all, words were just talk crammed into various combinations of letters, each with its own sound. I didn’t read well silently or out loud. In my senior English class, Ms. Vance apparently read the tea leaves in my academic file and let me orally recite Polonius’s farewell speech to his son Laertes in Hamlet, an assignment right in my wheelhouse. For the first time, I heard my dad’s advice all dressed up. His third-grade education didn’t give him the same words, but the message was familiar. “Son, don’t pick a fight, but if you’re in one, make sure the other feller knows it.” Amazingly, Shakespeare seemed to be saying the same thing, albeit with a little more flair: “Beware of entrance into a quarrel, but being in, bear’t that the opposed may be beware of thee.” For perhaps the first time, I understood that the dry words on the page—like the sounds they represented—had real meaning.
This little insight was one of the turning points in my education. Twelve years of slow or non-reading is not easily fixed, but the seed was planted. Perhaps there was a point to learning. Maybe other “fancy” writers who wrote thick books and long poems actually knew a thing or two about life on a dirt road. I have since discovered they do—that good literature is all about the big questions and the messy people who ask them. The cadence may be different and the language a little old-fashioned in some cases, but the questions were in there somewhere. I just had to find them.
After college, I discovered Robert Penn Warren, a former poet laureate of the United States, and John Steinbeck. These men could write like my family talked. In All the King’s Men, one old boy, “got stobbed in a fight.” My folks wouldn’t need a dictionary for that line. These characters appeared to know all about my dad’s struggles of feeding a family of seven on a saw-miller’s wage. These writers taught me that it didn’t matter that it took me three to five minutes to read the page because there was more on it than words. In the real world, nobody was timing me. Eventually, reading became a way for me to sort through the achingly real problems of love, loss, and redemption instead of a race to get to the bottom of the page.
Steinbeck’s novel of sharecroppers on a desperate odyssey across the country inspired a generation of readers. The Joad family’s story in Grapes of Wrath is full of familiar lessons that are not bound by income brackets. Life in its rawest form happens to all of us, sometimes heroically. The solemn promise to “be there . . . Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” has stirred what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” in every generation since Steinbeck lent Tom Joad (and actor Henry Fonda) those simple, eloquent words. To get to the bottom of the page may take a lifetime, but according to some words I saw in red ink, life is not always about being first. I wish I had known that in the fifth grade.