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My Autobiography as a Reader

By Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Associate Professor of English 

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney As a child I had books instead of playmates; and, when I grew older, I learned to use books as the basis for my friendships. One of my earliest memories is of my father reading to me from the Mary Poppins' series when I was about four-years-old. Daddy was quiet, withdrawn, and not much given to physical affection; therefore, being allowed to cuddle against him in "his" living room chair, while he read aloud to me, was very special indeed. If anyone interrupted him during this time - if my mother came into the room to ask him something, for example - he would start over a few sentences earlier, in order to preserve the story's continuity. As soon as I realized this, I began to figure out ways to interrupt him myself so as to make the reading last longer. 

I don't remember exactly when I learned to read by myself, although I know that my two older sisters taught me to write long before I entered the first grade. Because my sisters were 13 and 11 years older than me, I was an only child as well as a youngest child, and I spent most of my time reading. Most of the volumes that I read were ones that I simply discovered in the bookshelves of my parents' home in Maryland and my grandmother's house in Pennsylvania. I read adult books that were much too old for me; my mother, for example, used to tell how I asked her, at age seven, what a "pimp" was, and when she demanded to see what I was reading - a very racy biography of Rodin entitled Naked Came I - I smugly replied that she had taken me to see Rodin's sculptures at the Baltimore Museum of Art, so surely it was O.K. for me to read a book about him. (I don't think she ever explained what a pimp was, however.) I also read children's books that were much, much older than I was - from vintage Nancy Drews, with blue silhouettes of Nancy in flapper dress on the orange flyleaves, to turn-of-the-century girls' stories and boarding-school romances like Marjorie's Busy Days and A Little Miss Nobody, to the complete works of Gene Stratton Porter. It was only much later, in my teens, that I began to realize what a strangely old-fashioned, secondhand sort of childhood I had had, not only because I was brought up among people much older than I was, but also because I spent so much time devouring books that no one else my age had ever heard of, let alone read. 

I especially liked reading these musty, fragile, forgotten old volumes at my grandmother's house, where they were quarantined behind the glass doors of old-fashioned bookcases - and not in the library or the living room, where the proper books were kept, but in a tiny room upstairs known as "the sewing room" because an antique Singer sewing machine that no one ever used was kept there. I actually read these books in the library, in an enormous leather-covered rocking chair that had belonged to my grandfather, and that was big enough for even an adult to curl up inside. It was with a special thrill that I would read, on the flyleaf of one of these books, the name of my mother or her sisters and brothers, inscribed "to a very sweet girl" or "to a good boy" by some long-dead great-great-aunt over 50 years before. Part of the thrill came from the poignant feeling that someone else, no matter how distant, had also rapturously followed, like me, the doings of Dora Deane or one of those other goody-goody heroines. (I feel the same poignancy when I leave a movie theatre by myself, knowing that I've shared an emotional experience with dozens of others but am now quite alone again.) In fact, I used to ask my parents, somewhat nervously, if they had not also "liked to read" when they were little - because, despite the number of books they owned, I never saw them reading anything but the newspaper. 

By the time I reached high school, I knew that I had had an unusual childhood, in part because I had read such an oddly large and various assortment of books. I also discovered, however, that there were other people like me. And I quickly learned that one of the few pleasures as profoundly intimate as reading someone's written thoughts is talking to someone else, in person, about that experience. From that point on, sharing books, conversing about books, and reading books aloud have been important aspects of all my friendships and romances. 

Long after I had grown up, I came upon Eleanor Farjeon's marvelous collection of fairy tales for children, The Little Bookroom, and felt a keen affinity with the book's narrator. As a child, the narrator says, she had read all the leftover books that overflowed from her parents' bookshelves and were stored in the little room of the title - just as I once savored the forgotten riches in my grandmother's sewing room. A few years later, when Farjeon's long out-of-print book was reprinted by Dover Press, I bought a copy for an eight-year-old nephew who lived half a continent away from me. The next time I saw him, he wanted to talk about The Little Bookroom, because he didn't know anyone else in the world who had read it. Like me, he had discovered that books were an intrinsic part of who he was and of how he would relate to everyone else. 

This essay was the result of an assignment for students and faculty alike in a course titled "Book as Text, Book as Object." Professor Sweeney co-taught the course with and Professor Susan Schmidt of the visual arts department. 

 

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