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Did I Tell You I Used to Hate Books ~ I Mean Really Hated Them

I don’t know if any of you watched the PBS Great American Read and, indeed, participated in some way. I watched all the shows, which I found interesting, and voted several times.

The Great American Read started with 100 books, chosen, they told me, by readers “just like me.” I’m a little skeptical. If they were readers just like me then Fifty Shades of Grey and even The Da Vinci Code wouldn’t have made the top 100. Don’t get me wrong. The Da Vinci Code was a real page turner, which I enjoyed. And I’m fully aware that Dan Brown has sold millions of books and I’ve only sold a handful. I’m suitably impressed by Brown’s storytelling ability (and I believe his wife’s research), but good writing it is not. I had to keep reminding myself that the Great American Read was not necessarily about good or great literature, but about books Americans enjoy reading. And so you get the likes of I, Alex Cross next to Don Quixote, and Twilight next to The Grapes of Wrath. It really hurt to hear that The Sirens of Titan, at #87, came in one behind Fifty Shades of Grey at #86. Anyway, the top five finalist were in order of first to last: To Kill a Mockingbird; Outlander (series); Harry Potter (series); Pride and Prejudice; and The Lord of the Rings (series). If you want to look at how the voting ended, click here: The Great American Read

I bring this up because the program, while about authors and their books, was also about the importance of reading, and that element got me remembering. When I was young I hated reading and I hated books. I literally had a negative physical reaction to books. They made me ill. The reason was simple. I’m slightly dyslexic—not debilitating so, but enough to cause real problems when you’re young. And I was young long before anyone wrote their Ph.D. dissertation on the subject. We had to read out loud in class and that was a real difficult and humiliating experience for me. If I had to read “The dog chased the cat down the road,” my eyes and my voice could get stuck on the word cat, for example, and so I stopped reading, stuck. I knew the word was “cat” but I just couldn’t get it out of my mouth before my teacher hit me with a ruler and announced to the entire class that I was stupid. I kid you not! So, I hated reading and I hated books.

Two things happened to me that saved my life. First, even though books made me physically ill—did I say I hated books!— I still told myself I had to read a damn book, and then another, and then another. If I didn’t read several damn books I’d never get into college, and I was telling myself this as a little kid (I tended to worry about the future). And so, I went to the library and found Powder Keg: A Story of the Bermuda Gunpowder Mystery by Donald E. Cooke, The John C. Winston Company: Philadelphia and Toronto, 1953. The book is 179 pages long. I took it home, and at night while in bed, I made myself read ever damn word in the book. Every damn word! I couldn’t skip even one. It was important to me. If I failed to finish the book, or skipped even one word, then I would have failed. I had to read the entire book. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. By the time I got into junior high school (which I guess is called middle school now) I was heavy into sci fi. I’d lie in bed in the summer reading to three in the morning. But Powder Keg is the first book I read, and I mean every damn word.

About five years ago I started thinking about that book. I didn’t have the title right in my mind, and I certainly didn’t remember the author, but I went to and started putting in titles. Eventually I found it and now I’m a proud owner of a first edition of Powder Keg.

The second miracle that saved me from a life bereft of books was a teacher. I think I got all the way to the 5th grade without being able to read worth shit and one day at the beginning of the year we were, of course, reading out loud in glass. At the end of the day, the teacher asked me to stay and when everyone was gone, she sat with me and simply asked straightforwardly if I could read. She asked in such a gentle and respectful way I simply said no. For the first time I told the truth about my inability. After faking it for years, it did feel good. She arranged for me to come to her house on Saturdays and she and her daughter, who was young than I, taught me to read. We ate tapioca pudding and read. Truly amazing. What a good person and teacher. I can still see her face, and interestingly her hands, but I do not remember her name. She’s long gone now, but she saved my life.

I now read all the time and love books. As I write this I’m in my study surrounded by books: fiction literary and popular, philosophy, theology, history, politics, narrative theory, theater and film theory, robotics and artificial intelligence and on and on. Now, I write books, though none of them got into the 100—go figure. Perhaps my time will yet come, but if it is going to come, I’d like it to be sooner rather than later.

So, forgiveness (if you can) to all the stupid and mean spirited teachers, and blessings and thanksgiving to all the intelligent and lifesaving teachers.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

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