A letter-perfect anniversary: 50 years of reading

The Baltimore Sun

It's my golden anniversary. Fifty years ago this month, I learned how to read.

I was ready. My mother had long been reading aloud to my sister and me. One of the Golden Books had become so familiar (though now lost to memory) that I could render it word for word by heart, turning the pages at the appropriate points.

Then, 6 years old, I stepped into Mrs. Dexter Benton's first-grade class at Elizaville Elementary School. That first day, after going over the alphabet, we all copied out our names on sheets of lined paper. (The crossbars on the capital I were a little difficult, and I wound up with a thicket of them. The world of letters had opened.)

Actually, the world of letters opened into the world of Alice and Jerry, and the excitement of breaking the code of letters concealed for a time what a dull little world it was. Ultimately, I much preferred comic books, particularly the Donald Duck series and later Superman. That was, after all, the principal reading fodder available at that time and place.

The resources for eight grades wedged into a five-room schoolhouse in a tobacco-farming crossroads town in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1950s were as paltry as you might imagine. There were few books in the school apart from our textbooks. There was not to be bookmobile service or a county library for some years. Fleming County had no bookstore.

And the republic of letters was not the only realm represented in the school. It did not take long to develop into a myopic bookworm, attracting scorn and bullying -- one stereotype reacting to another. My pronounced lack of enthusiasm for all known forms of sport was no help. And so I armed myself with the bookworm's weapons, intellectual snobbery and sarcasm -- junior-sized weapons, true, but with edges that can cut the wielder as much as the target.

In recent years, I've taken great solace from subscribing to the Flemingsburg Gazette, the county paper. The court news in particular has recorded at intervals the fixes my youthful tormentors have gotten into with the law.

But once the code of the alphabet was unlocked, everything else faded away in the hunger for more to read: reading through the textbooks ahead of the rest of the class, getting hold of textbooks from the next grade up, devouring books lent by sympathetic teachers, accepting the books bought at some sacrifice out of my parents' modest incomes.

My parents, Raymond and Marian Early McIntyre, knew that they had somehow wound up with an odd duck, but they did all they could to uphold their peculiar child.

Reading opened up the wider world. Oh, there was television, of course, three channels. Mostly Westerns. Sometimes cartoons. But it was ephemeral; it flickered and was gone. A book was a solid thing, substantial, manifestly there. It could be held, gone over once, returned to at will, the first discovery and enjoyment repeated.

It led to a larger world, a world full of history and looming personalities, a larger and richer world than Elizaville or Flemingsburg, the county seat, or Maysville in the next county, or even that teeming metropolis, Lexington. Reading was the passport that granted admission to that larger world, and I have never left it.

The Bobbsey Twins gave way to the Hardy Boys, the Hardy Boys to more advanced fiction. I still have a copy of The Sherwood Ring, a novel featuring ghosts from the American Revolution, and the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, purchased around 1961 or 1962. But really anything, history, biography, science fiction -- anything that came to hand -- was worth a look. There are, I believe, still books on the shelves of the Fleming County Public Library with my signature on the checkout cards (and some of them appear not to have been checked out since).

Mrs. Benton, motherly, kindly and gentle with her charges, was the first of a series of teachers, mostly women, who recognized and fostered that appetite for books and learning (and cushioned as well as they could the derision that comes the bookworm's way).

Now, 50 years and books by the thousand later, on this grand anniversary, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the memory of Mrs. Benton and all her successors and all who continue to offer to children the gift of reading, the pleasure that never fades.

John McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk. You can read his blog, "You Don't Say," at baltimoresun.com.


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