My mother's sister says that she taught me to read when I was three years old. "That can't be right!" I interrupt--she is, after all, 92--but she persists, "Don't you remember reading La Vanguardia with me?" And the memory comes back of sitting on the terrace of my grandparents' farmhouse. It is summer, and a storm is coming in. You can smell the rain on the dusty road to the next village long before you can see it. There is a clap of thunder and my aunt looks up at the black sky, "The angels are banging their furniture around," she says. Then her finger lands on the next line of newsprint, "Tell me what this says."
Lest I appear precocious, I should mention that Spanish spelling is highly phonetic, so a three-year-old reading the newspaper is not as extraordinary as it might seem. But it wasn't exactly ordinary, either. My early reading was the combined result of my aunt's eagerness to show me off to her rival, my mother--"See what I can do with your child!"--and my urge to comply and be praised.
My aunt's enthusiasm earned me years of boredom in school. On the first day of class, when we were handed our new textbooks, I would go home and rush right through the readings book, followed by the history and then the religion books. After this the remainder of the school year was a trek in a desert of tedium, relieved only by bursts of terror in math class.
This gorging on school books came to a halt when I landed in an American high school with only the sketchiest knowledge of English. But I compensated by whizzing through the French texts--so much easier than the ones in my other classes--and as a result I was bored to tears all the way through my college French major. It wasn't until grad school prelims, when there wasn't even a reading list because we were supposed to have read every "serious" book ever written in the French language, that I felt I had more reading than I could handle.
But how did I celebrate my dissertation defense? I went to the library and checked out all the authors who hadn't been deemed worthwhile by my professors--Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras...(Yes, all of them women.)
And what am I doing today, a couple of centuries later, when I'm not dealing with the dogs or the garden or the hens? I'm reading. A lot of women writers, and a lot of British writers whom I didn't get to read while I was teaching Romance Languages: Anthony Trollope, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Penelope Lively, Kate Atkinson.
I read too much. I read instead of writing. "Read everything you can get your hands on," writers are told, but that is dangerous advice, for who wouldn't rather read than write? Who wouldn't rather eat than cook? True, you do learn from reading (some) writers. But really, you learn to write by doing it day after day, sentence by sentence, world without end, amen. And by deleting, deleting, deleting. "Renunciation is the writer's honor," Colette writes. See? I did learn something from reading.
But mostly I read because, other than eating, it's the earliest thing I can remember doing. A friend used to say of a man we both knew that he was such an obsessive reader that while you were talking with him he would try to read the brand on the sole of your shoe. I am probably afflicted to a lesser degree, but, like an alcoholic, I never rest easy unless I have a stash of books safe in my cellar. God forbid I should set out from home without something to read in my bag--who knows where I might get stuck? And especially when a storm threatens, and we're expecting one tonight, I like a thick book by my side.