A Life of Reading

My blog book, published to Amazon Kindle, had my second grade photograph as the cover. That’s just about the time that reading began to take a hold on my life. It is my reading that helps provide the perspective from which I view the world. I did not always love reading.

Neither of my parents, except for their daily Wheeling News Register or  Wheeling Intelligencer,  were avid readers. They were bright people, and interested in many things, but they much preferred a good conversation to a quiet read.

One incident sticks in my mind. We lived on West Park Street from my first to third grade, in the Edgewood section of Wheeling, WV. We were a block away from my elementary school, Edgington Lane. I had put off reading an assigned book and writing a book report. The year before I, in first grade, I had been reading Dick, Jane, and Sally, and now I was expected to read, understand, and report on, a book?

I think I was a pretty good student, but in the first grade I had been pretty much oblivious to grades, so much so that when I took my last report card to my grandmother, I had to ask her whether I had passed to the second. She assured me I had. What a relief.

I remember crying in frustration as my Mother came into the room. I confessed that just could not work my way through the book and write a report in the time I had available. She replied, “I will read it with you this one time, but next time you must start sooner.” I assured her I would, and wish I could say I kept the promise. Even now, my life is a series of close calls, most of which we resolve in our favor.

I cannot remember the story, but I remember that it was a revelation to me that we could enter another world, just by reading the words. What had been a chore was turned into a fun experience because she new the words!  She also helped me to write my report. Any grade is lost in the mists of time. (The next year, I got a small set of plastic dies of the letters of the alphabet and an ink pad. It was a crude printing press. I decided to write my own newspaper. Unfortunately, my limited vocabulary prevented any meaningful communication, but I remember the urge to put words to paper.)

By the second semester of  the third grade, I was in Park View School, a few miles away. I returned to the school where I attended kindergarten. I have third grade class photos at both Edgington Lane and Park View. We moved up to a small rental farm house at the top of Park View Hill,  for the second, of two, times.

I had been reading a lot, for pleasure, and was very pleased that the annual aptitude test said that I was reading at a fifth grade level, two years ahead of grade level. Just like golf or auto racing, if you are good at something, you tend to want to do it. Thus, my aversion to golf.

In the fourth grade, Mrs. Ellison startled and pleased me during our read-out-loud session. She asked for a show of hands from my class whether I or the smart girl in class was a better reader. They, of course, were unanimous in selecting Becky, but she said, “No, Burt puts more inflection into his reading.” That fact I can remember that praise 56 years later shows the impact it had on me.

I also remember with sadness the excruciating experience of a girl we treated badly who could only identify “the”, “at” and other single syllable words during her turn at reading out loud. Her memories of Park View are not likely to be good ones. I am very sorry June.

We had a “bookmobile” that came to our school every week. By fourth grade, I would get two books each week and read them, to the detriment to my studies. In fifth grade, three or four of my friends and I had a competition. Each of us read between 91-106 books that year. I read biographies of George Washington, Babe Ruth, and many others, animal books such as Beautiful Joe, the Black Stallion Series, and books of boys having great times. There we also classics like Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and an abridged version of Moby Dick.

My uncles had books as boys.  I found a box full of them, with my uncles’ names in them. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar was a revelation. There was a series of boys who attended a private school. They swam down to a sunken ship and found a musty room that had remained sealed.  

I read dozens of Hardy Boy books, all of them until I graduated from h.s. I have reread a couple as an adult. Not bad. They became a series on the Mickey Mouse Club t.v. show. They had “chums”, a detective father named Fenton, and access to motorcycles, a car, and their boat, The Sleuth, which they anchored at Bayport. They also had girlfriends, and a pudgy friend who was always good for a laugh, Chet Morton. They never drank, cursed, or had sex.

When I discovered science fiction, my reading went ballistic. During high school we had study halls. We had to work on homework, but I put the book inside the textbook, and promised myself I would do the homework later. I was not a bad student, 10th-15th, in a bright class (everyone at Linsly got admitted to college, and I think we all graduated), but I rather startled my teachers to be one of six National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists, with vocabulary, spelling and English scores among the top one per cent in the nation. Capt Judy, in a rather back handed compliment, said that if I would bother to work, I could be a straight A student.

It was the standardized tests that helped me think of myself as a smart kid. The down side of this is there were other students, some with better grades, had the reverse effect because they did not test well. I had a knack of triangulating into the right true false and multiple choice questions. I credit my extensive reading. Truth is I was not a dedicated student.

I got lots of science from science fiction, and branched into many areas. My Aunt Elizabeth, Libby, got me a large volume with lots of photos of natural history. Dinosaurs, volcanoes, weather, gigantic mammals, and, of course, the evolution of mankind, were set out in colorful, detailed, illustrations. Much of it has since been supplanted, but the basics were there, and they were compelling. My Mother worried that the book was “making him sick” because I showed it,  and explained it, to everyone I could corner.

When I appear to be rough on religions and religious pronouncements, it is my reading that is partly to blame. One cannot read biographies of Darwin, or The Song of the Dodo, or Jared Diamond’s books on societies and civilizations, or the history of the Egyptians, or the work of the Leakeys, and also believe that water can be changed into wine, the dead brought back to life, or demons cast from a mentally ill person into a flock of sheep. That one was the subject of a sermon by my favorite minister. It very much bothered me as an insult to anyone with a “mental illness”. How can a minister “minister” to someone he believes has a demon inside? And if he knows the demons are a metaphor, why insult the intelligence of his “flock” in pretending otherwise?

I certainly hope my thoughtful, intelligent, Christian friends do not believe in such things, Just as I can go to church and sing about Jesus being the “miracle man”, others can attend and keep quiet on troubling issues. They do lots of good things for the church, its members, and their community. If it gives them peace and structure in their lives, so be it, but I think that anything supernatural should be recognized as metaphor or tradition. No member should be ostracized or fearful of speaking out in favor of modernity, science, and truth.

I believe in living “an examined life”; that is, a life of self reflection. I believe we have a responsibility as sentient creatures to figure out “What’s it all about Alfie?” Or, as Or, as Peggy Lee asked, “Is That All There Is?  

As I have blogged and video’ed, I also believe that extensive reading and study (including going back for formal education, or college courses such as those from The Teaching Company), and continuing legal education, make me a better lawyer, and a better person.

 j.b.h. iii

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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