In 1973, my family lived in the Boston-area town of Brookline, where I walked to Devotion School a few blocks away, and I had my first taste of city life – one that formed many of my tastes as an adult. We lived on the second floor of a large turn-of-the-century house in a neighborhood of such houses, peppered with small brick apartment buildings and all shaded by large, mature trees.

Between my elementary school and my home was the in-city Kennedy family home, open for free as a museum, to which I would sometimes detour on my way to school in order to wander the empty house, pressing doorbell-like buttons that activated recordings of the quavering voice of Rose Kennedy, reminiscing about life in the house with her children. I don’t recall the house as either special or large, but I’m sure it was free, as that independent bit of first-grade hooky sticks in my mind.

There was one other forbidden activity, which I cherished at the time. On the main thoroughfare that fronted my elementary school, about a block away, was a dingy little shopfront run by an elderly couple known as Irving’s Candy Store (I am STUNNED to see this web page, BTW). Irving’s was dimly lit and in the back of the store there were wooden bins mounted as drawers, cut down somewhat so as to be open in the front in which very, very inexpensive, tasteless candy was stored. I recall in particular meringue-like dry things stamped and dyed into the likeness of ice cream cones which simply had no flavor at all, but had the great advantage of costing about a nickel, or perhaps less.

Occasionally, announcements would be made at school that we were not allowed to patronize Irving’s, presumably because children were spending their lunch money on tasteless, brightly colored candy instead of tasteless, dully-colored cafeteria food. It always struck me as unfair to Irving and his wife, who were always so kind to a kid that came tentatively wandering through the door.

I recall seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my parents at the Coolidge Corner cinema, still in business, so reliable sources inform me. I was quite terrified of the psychedelic journey by boat through the tunnels of the factory and consternated by the fate of Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and the rest of the bad children in the film. I knew that I had been bad – hadn’t I purchased penny candy and listened to the forbidden samizdat of Rose Kennedy’s crackly recollections? A similar fate awaits me, one day, as all evildoers; I live in fear. I will be hunted in my hole, and sucked through the transparent plastic pipes to meet my fate at the majestic hands of a just universe.

I must not neglect to mention the ancillary trauma of the revealed cruelty of President Nixon as he fired many senior staff in what would come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The event so bothered me I made a little book about it from a cut-up box for Crest Toothpaste, a book I have to this day, depicting the bawling and newly unemployed former members of the Nixon Administration.

Rounding out my litany of terror was the fearsome Pop imagery of a two-foot silk-screened mouth that decorated my bedroom wall, a painted press-board plaque from which issued boiling storm clouds each night as I slept, to transfix me with bolts of lightning like spears, lifting me from my bed and over the open staircase there to dash me against the landing and certain death below. I can’t count the number of times I dropped down through the darkened and silent internal sky, screaming soundlessly. I still have this dream from time to time.

Beyond these childhood traumas, however, was a family ritual that led in another direction – my father read the entirety of The Hobbit to my sister and I in the evenings there, the two of us piled about him on the family beanbag. He read the whole book through aloud to us. In first grade, I was having great difficulty with the memorization components of basic literacy, my parents tell me, but somehow I became fascinated by the realization that within that book, accessible only by reading, lay a different world than this one, with different hazards, and warm firelight, and no perfidious authority to confound and frighten me.

As I understand it, I simply made off with the book one day, and to my parents’ surprise did not stop reading until I had actually completed not only The Hobbit, but also The Fellowship of the Ring and sometime later The Two Towers. I may have continued on to The Return of the King as well, but if so, I skipped the last half of The Two Towers; Tolkien’s prose in certain sections of the book is deliberately crafted to emphasize the onerous monotony and drudgery of the hobbits’ journey to Mordor, and I know for certain that I was so bored with this section of the book that it was no longer enjoyable.

I do not know how long, in calendar terms, it took me to tackle this. I’m reasonably sure that I was done with both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring before we returned to Indiana in 1974. Upon returning to the Midwest, I’m told, I began to read the things one expects a six to eight year old to read, Richard Scarry books, Where the Wild Things Are, Encyclopedia Brown, Arnold Lobel, and so forth.

I still read in vast quantities, however, and at one point my parents forbade me to read in bed (a habit I retain to this day), as I would read an entire book in a night at the expense of sleep. I’d choose instead to snooze through subjects such as math, which gave me no pleasure and retained the basic challenge of rote-based learning as a prerequisite to comprehension.

In response to the ban, I simply began rising at 2 am and reading in another room until my family arose, at which point my parents kind of gave up.

At any rate, the very first book I ever read on my own was certainly The Hobbit, and very shortly thereafter at least The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve re-read it any number of times since.

The sheer pleasure of a slice of one’s childhood remaining unchanged in form of external stimuli, so unlike physical landscapes or people, is deep indeed. It contains an element of experience that for many years of this world’s history belonged primarily to religious experience, religious texts being the most widely disseminated and easily available for children to consume.

The warmth and pleasure my mother gains from scripture is unavailable to me; but I recognize in my experience a cousin to that consolation. A difference is in my regard of the material; Lord of the Rings is fiction, pastiche, constructed deliberately by a conservative scholar with a Romantic streak a mile wide and a marked inability to write about the internal life of women.

My mother’s devout relationship with the Bible is open to learning about the cultural conditions of the production of the book, from initial authorship through multiple translations. But the special quality of the book, for her a document which embodies literal spiritual truth, is a quality which I do not attribute to Lord of the Rings.

Nonetheless, I have been able to gain a sympathetic understanding and appreciation of my mother’s beliefs, and of others’, by observing my own non-rational emotive states which stem from Rings as a primary vehicle for both childhood escape and retention and expansion of childhood memories.

4 thoughts on “Learning to read

  1. Since I haven’t yet seen the first LOTR movie, I haven’t figured out yet how they shrink their actors to hobbit size. Elijah Wood, the actor that plays Frodo, was on the Tonight Show last night (playing with a half-grown Siberian lynx, no less); and while he was short, he wasn’t THAT short. Do he and the other hobbit folks get digitally shrunk during the editing process, or how does that work, exactly? Just curious…

  2. Your essay brought some wonderful memories winging back to me. My own school days were problematic from the social standpoint; my family were singled out for ostracization due to terminal weirdness. No TV, no pop music, no movies, no pretty clothes, weird accents.

    My mother took the whole pack of us to the library once or twice a week, which soon became one of the highlights of my life (school being waaay down at the bottom…).

    John Buchan, PG Wodehouse, John Milton, Greek mythology, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkein, massive quantities of dubious historical fiction (one about Queen Esther still sticks in my mind as a tear-jerker, although the name is long gone from my memory), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lord, the list is endless.

    My mother also had a hard and fast rule about bedtime by 8 PM, which is rough in the summer (when there is still a little light left) but brutal in the winter. I discovered the secrets of electricity fast (batteries, wire and light-bulb courtesy of the science department of the Berkeley Unified School District…)

    And your post brought it all back. Thank you.

Comments are now closed.