Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Wholesome Addiction

I've been ill.  We've been car shopping (and buying).  Classes started two weeks ago, and I always forget how many students need help, even in the second week, determining what class they should be in.  I've been busy, and I've had no time to blog.  More importantly, I've had little time to read.

Not reading takes a toll on me.  I need it.  I've been reading for as long as I remember.  I have a picture of me reading with my dad when I was three years old, and I haven't really stopped since then.  I read books, comics, newspapers, cereal boxes, milk cartons, road signs, billboards, and shop windows.  I read the history of the restaurant on the back of the menu.  I read emails at work -- and live to regret it.  I read the forms people tell me to sign.  (A fellow at the car dealer was a little annoyed with me for doing that the other day.)  I read the credits at the end of movies.  I once spent an entire vacation in the Smoky Mountains reading a trash can.  (It was full of tables of facts from American History.  Judge me.)  To the mystification of young people everywhere, I even read instruction manuals, including the line that says, "Read all instructions before beginning to assemble your new patio grill."  I'll admit it: I'm addicted to reading.

I remember once sitting with my two-year-old son in the Target parking lot staring at the giant red letters above the store.  He asked me what I was so fascinated with, so I pointed out the letters to him and gave him a little quiz.  He knew A, B, and C when he was eighteen months old, so, while I don't remember definitely, I'm fairly sure he knew all the letters on this sign.  But he didn't know yet that it was a word.  And it occurred to me that when I looked at the giant red shapes above the store, I saw a word without any effort or decision, where he saw only giant red shapes.

I read once (of course I did) about a study done with U.S. and Canadian teen-agers to see how seriously they took the health warning on a package of cigarettes.  Each was given a package and told to study it for two minutes.  Afterwards the researchers asked them what they remembered and what they thought about what they had seen.  The surprising twist in the results was that, while the Canadian kids had various reactions to the warnings, the U.S. kids generally did not even remember a warning; it seems that the words on the package simply didn't register on their consciousness.  I can't imagine living that life.

So, of course, I've been reading a little during this busy period.  Besides the street signs and the ingredients lists, I've read from the Prayer Book and the Bible each morning.  And I've tried to stay faithful to The Plan.  Between lack of time, fatigue, and mental distraction, though, it hasn't been much, and it hasn't made as much sense as I would have wished.

But then just two days ago, in rereading some essays by Montaigne, I came across a passage that leaped from the page and seized my full attention.  In this passage, the essayist confessed to using pedantic quotations of classical sources in an argument denouncing this very kind of pedantry.  At that moment I experienced the delicious feeling of recall of a thought that had not crossed my mind in many years -- fourteen years in this case.  I remembered reading this line the first time and immediately beginning to like Montaigne, suddenly to think of him as a person I would love to have known and to have engaged in conversation.  The first time reading the passage introduced me to a new friend.  The recent reading -- by which I mean the very act of reading, the sensation of the pleasant memory, and the content -- came to me like a pearl of water on a leaf in a desert of enrollment lists and Transfer Substitution Forms.

The early Puritan settlements around Massachusetts Bay had the highest literacy rate of any civilization in history.  Now the children of the nation that sprang from those Pilgrims don't even recognize words as words when they see them.  I thank God for placing me outside this frightening trend, for the gift of reading, and for the comfort, joy, and healing it brings.

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