How does a child learn how to read? As far as I can remember the process, I couldn’t read until, one day, I could. Written words and spoken words suddenly matched each other, and when that happened, it was magic. One clear memory that I treasure involved carefully copying words and stories from a book, probably a school reader, into an exercise book, and I can still feel the excitement and satisfaction of seeing that unfold. I was sitting at a child-sized table in a patch of sunshine at the front of our house during a Sydney winter, writing out the story word for word.
As I think about this now, I’m reminded of a similar process, but not a happy one, involving a university colleague who suffered a severe stroke in the prime of life. He had written two ground-breaking books based on the work of French philosophers, and, as part of his personal project of rehabilitation, he began copying the original text on his laptop, in the hope of making sense of what he had written a few years earlier.
Returning to my own story, I recall the first ‘real’ book that I read – Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. A family friend had given me a copy, and I was thrilled to be able to read it by myself – that is, until I got to the word ‘determined’, somewhere in the first few chapters. I always had to ask my mother how to pronounce that word, apparently because it was important to me to hear it correctly in my head; I routinely put the stress on the first syllable instead of the second. I still have the book in my collection, not for its literary value (yes, I’m aware of all the critiques of Blyton’s biases, including racism), but because it was a landmark in my childhood.
Book-lovers and authors often say they grew up in a house full of books. This was not my experience. As I recall, my mother had a copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, mainly for its health advice, and bought the Women’s Weekly quite regularly, while my father read the Sydney Morning Herald and had a small collection of Zane Grey’s paperback westerns. Author Frank Dalby Davison was an acquaintance of my father’s, and we had a copy of Man-Shy. My brother, 12 years older than me, had a small collection of books, including one called The Theory of Flight that I read when I was older and loved books about flying. In short, my family were readers, but I would not say that I was surrounded by books.
A neighbour and friend, Ada Smith, was the mother of Thelma Clune and mother-in-law of Frank Clune, both patrons of the arts. Through Frank’s connections to the publishing industry, Auntie Ada (as I called her), was the recipient of several remaindered books that she passed on to me. I think Shadow the Sheepdog and other children’s books came through her, as did a number of coffee-table books, some about Australia and others about the Royal Family. And yes, I still have most of these books, too, 70 years later.
When I began undergraduate studies in 1972, I used to write term papers in longhand, then type them. As an early adopter of a computer in 1979 (a primitive contraption that used audiotapes for data storage), I began composing on-screen, a big step towards writing more quickly and efficiently. It’s hard to imagine how we wrote back in the day, without the benefit of computers. It also seems like a different era (although it was only about 12 years ago) when I had to print final drafts and send them by courier to my American publisher, rather than simply email them as attachments. However, I was certainly not an early adopter of online books, having only graduated to doing so this year, out of necessity, when Toronto public libraries were closed for several months because of the pandemic.
Yes, reading and writing: things that sustain us (to borrow from Julia Baird, with great admiration!)
HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ