shaping a reader…

It’s a common saying…’in order to write, you need to read a thousand books’. Before you can write, you need to read. Everything. It all. Don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t think about it. Just READ!

I read my first thousand starting in the library at Villa Cabrini Academy. Just off the quad where we lined up and marched every morning. It was cool in the morning, typical of Southern California, long before smog and humidity and over-population. The quad would be in the shade, not yet heated by the daily sun. Sousa’s band music would blare from someplace unknown and we’d march in formation and then to our classrooms. Sounds militaristic now, right? All of us in baby blue uniforms, white collars and cuffs, Buster Brown oxford shoes, white socks. It got us ready to sit in desks and listen. It gave us shape as students.

The library was a room, not all that big, with all the walls lined with book shelves clear to the ceiling, and Cabrini had high ceilings. There were a couple oak tables with those very institutional chairs in the center and a desk with a card catalog and a place for Mother Imedia to check out books. The room was for fourth to eighth graders, each class in turn. Four and five were down the quad, the other side of the main entrance, toward the chapel. Six, seven and eight were toward our massive play ground that was at least an acre in size. [I remember when Crash Corrigan brought his stage coach and six horses into the yard and we all got to take ride around the playground.]

Mom would take us to the Burbank Public Library in the summer. It was bigger. Much bigger. And it was summer. So, I could take out as many books as I wanted.

The Library at Bishop Alemany High School was a huge room in the center of the school. physically and literately. Opposite the Administration building off the center quad was the small chapel. Up from that, study hall. Then, the Library on the top level. Out that door and you were facing the gym.

I do remember that at each library I would start at the lower bottom shelf and read. Mom complained about the month I hit the Sir Walter Scott section at Cabrini. I read so many that I was speaking with a Scottish brogue! At the BPL it was the OED on the first shelf in the reference section. I so wanted one of those for Christmas in seventh grade! First year at BAHS, I hit the Russian section of the library and received my first introduction to the ‘ethnic soul’. That’s the reason I studied the Russian language in high school and college.

In tenth grade a friend of my Mom’s gave me the University of Chicago’s Five Year Reading List. Supposedly if you read all the books on this list, you would be considered ‘well-read’. So…I read. Starting with page one.

My first thousand plus were unfiltered. Indiscriminate. Linear selections, based on shelf space and the Dewey Decimal System. At best, I was an unbiased reader. At worst, just a devourer of stories, ideas, other people’s thoughts. Not just books. Cereal boxes. Jacket flaps of Dad’s John MacDonald’s books with the tantalizing cover art. Cookbooks with Mom on Saturday mornings. I may not have remembered authors and titles, but I did remember stories and how some stayed in my imagination and my brain. How I can pull them up, almost at will. See the book in my hand. Remember reading this story under the covers with a flashlight at two in the morning. Or, that story sitting under The Old Oak Tree,  so absorbed in the story the fractious commotion surrounding me didn’t even dint my concentration.

I look at my own writing and I realized I am shaped by what I read and how it made me feel as a reader.


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