On Reading According to a Writer

30 06 2018

EDMUND WHITE: READING IS A PASSPORT
TO THE WORLD

When I was a little child, my sister, who was nearly four years older, was astonished that Icouldn’t read. We were in my mother’s old Ford, driving around the main square of Hyde Park, and my sister pointed to a sign and said, “You honestly can’t read that?”

“No,” I said sullenly. “What does it say?”

“Graeter’s,” she announced triumphantly, the name of Cincinnati’s premier ice creammaker. “Can’t you see that? What does it say to you?” She wasn’t being mean; she was genuinely puzzled. Reading was a magical portal—once you passed through it, you couldn’t even imagine going back.

must have been four. Two years later could read, or at least “sound out” syllables (that was the method then). When I realized that I could interpret these hieroglyphics, I felt sofree, as if a whole new world had been opened to me. Now I could herar a chorus ofvoices, even those coming from other centuries and cultures. I was no longer bound to the squalid here and now, to my mother’s web-spinning of agreeable fantasies or my father’s sudden eruptions of rage, to the sweating summers of that age before airconditioning.

remember toddling into my mother’s room, where she was taking a perfumed bubble bath in the late afternoon. I announced (or maybe thought), “I’m free. I can read.”

Could I really have had such an improbable thought at age six? Or have just told myself that that thought occurred to me then? And yet remember my mother’s sweetness, the good smell, the afternoon sunlight, and my very real feeling of joyful liberation. And,quite concretely, reading has always struck me as a passport to the world, one in which characters are more real than actual people, where values are more intense than in the dim light of reality, where characters fly up into destinies rather than paddle around in ambiguity.

I felt like a blind person who’d just regained his sight. I was no longer a Cincinnatian butrather an earthling. If things were clearly written in English, there was no text that wasoff-limits. I never read the standard children’s classics. No Wind in the Willows. Onlyrecently did I get around to Treasure
Island.

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