Some claim that to become a worthy writer, you have to be an avid reader. Of course, not all readers enjoy writing, but my journey to become a writer began with becoming an enthusiastic reader when I was a child. With that said, I never set out to become a writer, but I easily became enthralled by words and narrative, by the story that imaginatively transports us to unfamiliar but captivating worlds.
Looking back, I recall three pivotal moments that led to my fascination with words and story. The first involved poetry. When I was a grade-school child, I was lucky enough to live next door to a woman who became my surrogate mother. Her name was Marie McGeorge Davis, and she was a 1933 graduate of Wellesley College. Until that time, I had never known anyone who was a college graduate. My parents were both hard-scrabble adults; one the orphaned daughter of Eastern European immigrants, the other abandoned as a child who nevertheless became a resilient self-made man. Neither had a substantive education. So, Marie Davis, later known as Mama Davis, befriended me and led me into the literary world by reading poetry to me. She’d invite me over for tea and then she would read from her copy of 101 Famous Poems, a volume of which she gave me for my First Communion in 1961. One time, she read Poe’s “The Bells” with great dramatic flair, and I was completely mesmerized by the words and the ways in which the language mimicked the ringing of bells. I knew then that I wanted to be like Mama Davis who also loved words and the way they were combined to enchant the reader.
The next pivotal moment was also engendered by a neighbor, an older girl named Susie, who lent me her copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Up until that time, probably around fourth grade, I’d read and re-read my children’s poetry books my real mother bought me, filled with colorful illustrations of fairies under toadstools and flying away on the backs of dragon flies, but I also read in school tiny stories that we read silently at our own pace. I liked reading and setting my own goals and I quickly moved from one unit to another. I might have also read Winnie the Pooh or other children’s books, but I don’t really recall. But I do remember The Secret Garden and its atmospheric suspense and the need to uncover the mystery at Misslethwaite Manor. The petulant, spoiled, orphaned Mary Lennox, who arrived in England from India meeting the crippled child Colin. The antics of the “common” and adventurous boy Dickon. And I especially remember the setting of late-nineteenth-century England (which I’m sure eventually led me to be the Anglophile that I became). This was definitely an unfamiliar world, but I wanted to enter that secret garden and be changed by it in the way that Mary Lennox was.
The third moment in my transformation into becoming a reader was buying a book at our annual book fair at my Catholic school. The cafeteria tables had been regrouped and turned into book display tables and all of the books were colorful and beautiful hardbacks standing tall on book pedestals. Copies of children’s illustrated classics, like Treasure Island, Black Beauty, and Grimm’s Fairytales sat proudly on the tables waiting to be picked up and perused. But my attention was riveted on Little Women about which I knew nothing, but I liked the title because I’m sure I was interested in some day growing up and becoming a woman and I thought that this book might teach me how.
At any rate, I ordered my copy and eagerly and impatiently waited the many weeks before I received it and then as soon as I opened the package, I took my book to my room, shut the door, and entered the land of Little Women, the world of sisters and compassionate Marmie surviving during the tumultuous and terrifying Civil War. Little did I know that one of the characters would become a role model for me and other girls (in fact, in my grad school feminist theory course, the majority of us most admired this character) – Jo March was the little woman who was most the attractive, for Jo jumped fences and didn’t want to marry her neighbor Laurie; she wanted to be a writer.
Reading Alcott’s novel in fifth grade eventually led me in junior high and beyond to other notable characters, female and male: Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, Dorothea Brooke, Anna Karenina, Heathcliff, Oliver Twist, Don Quixote, Jean Valjean, and many other complex characters and narratives. In retrospect, I’m grateful to Marie Davis, Susie, and the good sisters of my Catholic school who valued reading and made it possible for their students to become enthralled by words and narrative, and characters who demonstrated the many ways to become a woman (or a man) and more importantly imperfect human beings with complex and conflicting desires and goals.
How did you become an eager reader? Which moments stand out in your childhood?