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Saturday, March 13, 2010

10. Autobiography (3) Sketch: My Early Life as a Reader

My father could neither read nor write, and I have no recollection of my mother reading to me. My earliest memories are of the Bible stories told at Sunday School, but even those are vague: Jonah being swallowed by the whale, Jesus walking on the water, Peter sinking because he lacked faith, Jesus saying: "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Suffering, I knew even then, was something painful; why would the children be suffered to go to him, I wondered. It didn't make sense.

I recall a book called Brave Brian, about a boy lost in a wood at night, where the trees and vines would grab hold of him. I think it was a fox that rescued him.

My favorite childhood stories came from radio: Little Toot, the tug boat who was laughed at by the other bigger tugboats but who saved the day; The Happy Prince, read - I think - by Bing Crosby - brought me to tears each time I heard it. There were others. One concerned a Christmas tree; another was Peter and the Wolf, with its stirring background music; and of course Peter Rabbit, who went into Farmer McGregor's garden without permission.

My mother played 'This little piggie went to market' with me. There was always that mix of anticipation when the smallest toe was about to be tickled. There were jokes, too, told by my father; his favorite was about the little boy in school, asked to put the words depot, delight and defender into a sentence: "De light was out, de pot was full, so I did it in de fender."

Family events were also times for stories. I remember being taken by the stories and riddles my Uncle Ivan would tell: "A man rode up the hill on Friday, stayed for a week and rode down the hill on the same Friday. How is that possible?"

I had a few books as a young child. Little Golden books were available in the shops, but we owned only a very few. I did have a book that featured little boys and girls with very chubby faces, but I recall little of the stories.

By the time I was 10 my aunts and uncles and neighbours were giving me books for my birthday - either a book from the Biggles series, by Captain W/E Johns, or one of the Billabong books by Mary Grant Bruce. I had virtually the full set of each series, but I didn't read them. I was a painfully slow reader. Indeed, by the age of 16 I had read only one book cover to cover, independently. At 12, I had persisted with reading Biggles Flies North for a mont, by which stage I had read 70 pages - so I gave up. When I first went to University, my reading was still painfully slow. I used to time myself: I averaged 4 to 5 minutes per page with a normal paperback, and I subvocalised all the time.

I loved listening to stories. I recall in grade 6 Miss Corrie read us the Australian classic, The Little Black Princess. I enjoyed being read to, or hearing tales told round the fire. And, ironically perhaps, I always loved writing stories.

It was Steinbeck who first fired my enthusiasm for reading. Of Mice and Men was my first book, and I was so taken by Steinbeck's style that I tried to copy it when I wrote. I loved the story, and afterwards tried to read Grapes of Wrath. It was hard going, but it moved me enormously. It took me two years, but I completed it. I recall, too, sitting in the dunes at Barwon Heads reading The Canterbury Tales in preparation for Year 12. I was camping there with mates from school

I struggled through the reading demands of University, slowly increasing my reading speed, but when I left university I had read fewer than thirty books in my lifetime. Over the Christmas break between completing Matriculation and going to University, I began a program of self improvement. I set out to broaden my reading, beginning with Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

The experience of Literature as she is taught at University all but destroyed the embryonic love of books that Steinbeck had brought to life. In English 1 and 2, we lay the cadavers of poems and novels on the examination room table, and dissected them. All around me were knowledgeable specialists and brilliant young men and women who spoke about literature in a language I could not understand. For me, it was a painful, lifeless pursuit and I spent virtually the whole time feeling incompetent. When I left university, I didn't want to read any more.

There is a system for helping poor readers to read; it is called the Delecarto method, and involves retracing the course of the child's development of perceptual and motor skills, to rebuild the brain's links. I went through a similar process. I didn't get down on the floor and learn to crawl again; I simply started again, with children's books.

I had arrived at Glenroy Technical School, a 22 year old teacher, with a BA and Dip.Ed, there to teach English and Social Studies, and a list of 'Books Read' that barely filled a page. As a teacher of junior English, I had to read books to the students. Someone introduced me to the C S Lewis Narnia series. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I was hooked. I read all seven in the series, and moved on to Lloyd Alexander's Prrydian series : The High King, Taran Wanderer, and so on, tales with a strong base in Celtic mythology. Next came The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings - still among my favorite books, I think - followed by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series. By my mid twenties, I was finally an avid reader; by my late twenties I was an avid reader and a published writer.

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