Ruined by Reading

Lynn Sharon Schwartz

Ruined by Reading.

“I read at an early age, three and a half. The girl upstairs taught me. Late afternoons, we stood at the blackboard in her hallway and she drew signs that were the same, but in another sensory costume, as the words that came from our lips. Once I grasped the principle of conversation, that airy puffs of voice could have a visual counterpart, the rest, what teachers call “breaking the code,” was routine.

The world existed to be read and I read it. Diamond Crystal Kosher Coarse Salt on the cylindrical container my mother shook over simmering pots, and Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. on every box and can, had the rhythms of the pounding verses the bigger girls chanted out on the street, twirling their jump ropes. Before I knew who I was or what I might be, I became the prodigy, the “reader.” When friends visited, my father would summon me and hand me the New York Times, his finger aimed at the lead story. “Read that.” I read, though those signs had no meaning. Sometimes guests refused to be convinced, suspecting I had been coached like the big winners on radio quiz shows. So my father would invite them to test me with any article on any page. No four-year-old could have memorized the entire paper. And while they marveled at my freakish achievement, which seemed to exist apart from my physical being, I could return to my paper dolls.”

The preceding paragraphs, from a small volume titled Ruined by Reading, speak eloquently of the power of the printed word, and portend the impact it was to have on the author's life. In another passage, Ms. Schwartz goes on to explain that, “It started – my reading, that is – innocently enough, and then it infiltrated. It didn't replace living; it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen in a bead of water. To part them could take violent and possibly lethal means, a spiritual electrolysis.”

As one who has read, and continues to read, pretty much anything that comes within her grasp, your columnist can relate very well to Lynne Schwartz. The dreaming summers of childhood were havens for reading, times during which it was permissible to curl up in a chair and read for hours, or climb up into a large tree to do the same. For me, as for the author, reading became in turn an escape or a solace, a passion or an addiction, a way to define and explain myself in a world that often confused and sometimes disturbed me.

“Incidentally, living by the word, by organized series of words, which is narrative, is a handicap when it comes to operating modern electronic devices like telephone answering machines or VCRs (not to mention computers and the phantasmagoric reaches of E-mail). Such ineptness is not due, as laughing children suppose, to quaintness or premature senility. It is simply that readers are accustomed to receiving information in the narrative mode. A row of minimally labeled buttons means nothing if the nerve paths aren't trained for it.”

Trained nerve paths or no, narrative still holds magic for me, as it obviously does for the author of this month's review selection. Ruined by Reading is a thought-provoking little tome, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Be sure to read all about it, and don't worry about being ruined!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.