Friday, 27 December 2013

Childhood reading

Once again our masters students have submitted their first written assignment: a critical reading autobiography. When I first came to Cambridge and saw this assignment on the syllabus, I said to myself: Oh dear, what is it, kindergarten? Then I started to supervise the essay and later grade it, and I had to admit I was profoundly wrong. It is an immensely challenging assignment if you do it properly (and if you don't, why bother?). If you manage to balance between the autheniticity of your childhood experience (and we know that memory is totally unreliable) and you critical self at the moment of writing.

There are many childhood reading memoirs, and I am the wrong person to write one since it is not my genre, but perhaps some short reflection in a blog post format, inspired by the pile of papers I am grading, can be a challenge. This will not be a marathon, because I cannot at the moment commit myself to a post every day.

I don't remember the triumphant moment when the black curlicues on a page started to make sense, and my memory of the first book I read on my own does not concur with my mother's account. We both remembered that I was four. I think it was Dunno and his friends, a Russian miniature-people story that stayed a steady favourite for years to come. When I wrote about it in From Mythic to Linear, I realised that it was a hilarious social satire, and I still wonder whether my parents and other adults saw it but pretended they didn't. A great example of how a harmless kiddy book can be subversive.  

Neznaika is a naughty boy throughout the story, and he is also illiterate and ignorant, but by the end of the book he learns to read and write. How very original! 

Dunno was quite an advanced book for a four-year-old, a full-length book with a complicated plot and sophisticated vocabulary of which I am sure I didn't understand all. There were some books in my childhood that I would today call picturebooks: very simple stories with a picture on every page and short, usually rhyming text. Most of them were concertina board books, A4 size. One that I remember well was about a teddy-bear who misbehaves and is duly punished. I ignored the punishment and enjoyed the warmth of the girl's relationship with the teddy and their simple joys of their meals and walks. Another was about a dog who runs away, only to find everybody else busy with something important. This one wasn't in rhyme, but it was a very short, repetitive story that I knew by heart. Maybe this how reading started: I looked at the words that I knew by heart, and suddenly it connected. It was a lovely story; my father wrote a musical piece to it, of the Peter and the Wolf kind.

So surely, there were picturebooks, and there were verses, but there was no transition from picturebooks to “real” books, and there were no easy readers.

By the time I started school, at seven, I could read fluently, and “learning to read” in the classroom, which then and there involved sounding syllable by syllable, was painful. While my classmates struggled with the primer I was already reading Gulliver's Travels. I never understood how it was possible not to be able to read.

To be continued.

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