My mother told me by age 2, I could read simple books. I used to doubt this until recently, when I saw a 2 year old this week who knew a lot of the alphabet. I know by 1st grade, I was reading at a 6th-grade level, and by 2nd grade, I was reading "adult books." Most of them were sci-fi and fantasy, but there were also crime drama, mysteries, and books on science and stuff. I used to get about a dozen books from the library every three weeks. When they handed around the "Scholastic Book Club" order form at school, I was always the one who got the most books. There'd be a handful of kids who got 1 or 2 titles, and I was the one who got up to 10 titles. Mostly books WAY over the grade level I was in.
One incident happened in 2nd grade that will always stick with me. I was supposed to do a book report on "a book you like" (as opposed to the usual, "what we tell you to read"), and I chose "Jaws," by Peter Benchley. It was a bestseller a year before, and I had a book club copy. I liked it initially because it had a black cover with a pencil drawing of a shark eating a swimmer, and I must confess, when I got it, I didn't think it was a horror book, but some book about sharks. But it was gripping, to be sure, and I stuck with it even though it scared me a little. Right before I finished it (it took me a long time, like half a school year), the movie from the book came out, directed by then unknown Steven Spielberg. When I gave my report, the teacher was a little suspicious I had not read the book, but instead saw the movie and claimed I read the book, which pissed me off. She called me right in front of class and everything. I said the movie was rated "R" and I was not allowed to see it (which was kind of a lie, my parents took me to R movies quite frequently, but I didn't see Jaws the Motion Picture until maybe 1981 or so), but she rolled her eyes and smirked in the most patronizing way, and asked me to read a random passage and "interpret what it means." So I angrily flipped through the book, stabbed my finger on some random page, and read what I saw. The passage? What horrible coincidence. It was where they discovered the upper half of a woman's torso on the shore, and the guy who discovers it vomits at the sight of the corpse because "her breasts were pressed flat like in a flower book." This got me in trouble, partially because when she asked me to stop, I kept going, partly out of spite, and partly out of the shock value of saying "breasts" in 2nd grade in the 1970s. And I interpreted, all right. "See, the shark had bitten the woman in half in an earlier chapter, and she was skinny dipping, see, which means she took off her bathing suit to swim naked. So when the blood drained from her body, her breasts (pointing to my own nipple) went flat--"
"THAT'S ENOUGH, Gregory Larson...! Please sit down..."
I got recess detention (cleaning the chalkboard) and a B on the report. She never questioned my reading level ever again, though. :)
I don't know how it is now, but in the 1970s, reading was NOT cool, and being a "bookworm," as they called us, was akin to being a social pariah. "Reading ... f-for fun? What are you, a freak???" they would say. I am not sure if it was an intimidation factor or just the book = nerd = different = "beat them up" sort of thing, but by 4th grade, I never read in public. Too risky.
By sixth grade, age 12, I was reading at an adult level. I could read anything, and if it was terribly complicated, I'd have an old beat-up college dictionary at my side. My constant reading in dim light forced me to have glasses by the time I was that age, but my father didn't allow them, so it took three years to finally persuade my mom to get them. Luckily, you can still read books when nearsighted.
I don't read many books these days. I think 90% of my reading is on the Internet, with an accomplishment of only 5-7 printed books yearly, mostly in the form of tech manuals. I also have TV now, and I can watch it when I like, and that's easier on my eyes and brain. I feel kind of bad because I used to be all up on the latest SF titles and such, but if you asked me the title of any SF book that made the NYT Bestseller List in the last ten years, I'd mumble something about Harry Potter, Star Wars, and then excuse myself to silently soak my head in shame. The last few books I got on Half.com had to do with comedy, self-improvement, computers, or a junior adult book I read as a kid, but never got (or lost) a copy. Most of these books lie in our guest room, half-read.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000392.html