Learning to Read, III
We were still reading in groups in fifth grade. I remember The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Also in fifth grade, I discovered a little collective biography called Pioneer Germ Fighters. For some reason I found this book absolutely fascinating. I re-read it dozens of times. Around this time, I was going to the public library regularly. I got in the habit of always having a few books checked out. I read a lot of Issac Asimov’s non-fiction science books. I also really liked The Book of Survival. It’s written around a theme of “Too.” The chapters were Too Hot (Fire, sunstroke), Too Cold (Lost in the Arctic), Too Wet (Shipwreck, drowning), and so on. Maybe I saw it as an outline for adventure stories.
(I like Amazon okay and I buy stuff there once in a while, but when I want to refer to a book I usually link to a review. But Amazon’s Look Inside feature is really neat. I hadn’t seen a copy of that book since probably 1975, but I immediately recognized it as (an updated edition of) the book I read. Barnes & Noble tried to open a pop-up, so no link for them.)
Sometime around sixth grade I became devoted to the humor books of Sam Levenson. Everything but Money is about growing up Jewish in New York in the early 1900’s. I read this repeatedly, and quoted large parts. A rough but decent bunch of kids in a mid-west coal-mining town in the early seventies, and me doing this Jewish humor shtick. It must have been a truly bizarre experience to spend any time around me at that age. Fortunately I got my growth early.
We moved to the junior high school for seventh, eighth and ninth grades. Here, I got into science fiction and fantasy. Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov. I also read a lot of poetry, much of which has stuck with me. In ninth grade we read Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations, The Lottery, etc. That was a great class, with a great teacher.
From Great Expectations to Disappointing Reality
For tenth grade, we moved to the high school. This was a huge waste of time in terms of English and literature. Up until my sophomore year, I had always been in some kind of advanced class, but tenth-grade English was tenth-grade English, for everyone. It was maddening.
We were to read Julius Caesar. Someone started reading:
“Hence; home, you idle creatures, get you home…”
And the teacher interrupted with, “Now, class, what does Shakespeare mean here? Who’s talking? Who’s he talking to? What’s he saying, in your own words?” Sigh; Well, best to get the preliminaries out of the way, so we all know the setting. Someone answered and we went on:
“What! know you not, being mechanical, you ought not walk, upon a labouring day, without the sign of your profession? Speak…”
And the teacher stopped us again. “Now, class, what does Shakespeare mean here? Who’s talking? Who’s he talking to? What’s he saying, in your own words?” That was a long class. So was the next one, and the next. I stopped answering, and zoned out as much as I could, reading when the talking wasn’t too much of a distraction.
Finally, we got to “Oh, pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth…”
The teacher stopped us and said, “Now Marcel, what’s Antony saying?”
I said something like “Nothing, yet; but if you’ll let him finish, he’s going to let slip the dogs of war.” This, and a bad attitude, got me a detention. So I shut up and did what I was told. Again, like basic training.
It was a welcome relief to do six weeks of speed reading with a special teacher. This was kind of neat. We had a machine called a tachistoscope that briefly flashed words and numbers up on the screen; we were to write them down without sub-vocalizing them. This was interesting. I did get better at it, and after the training, most of us could write down ten-digit numbers without really thinking about it. We also worked with reading machines. These projected a moving bar of light on the page of a book, briefly illuminating one line at a time. Then we learned some speed reading techniques for quickly scanning a page. It was all kind of neat, but I don’t know what long-term effect it had, if any. I’d completely lost any recognizable ability a month after the class ended.
Eleventh grade English was also required, but was less gruesomely bad than tenth. We read the romantic poets, Billy Budd, the memoir Death be not Proud. Twelfth grade English was an elective. I didn’t take it, and wasn’t required to take any English, Speech, or Rhetoric in college, so that was the end of my formal instruction in reading.