Reading as a Subversive Act

When I was in elementary school I was already an avid reader. I would attempt to read anything that sounded interesting to me, regardless of whether it was age-appropriate or at my reading level. Assessments always said that I was reading at a higher grade level, and I contend that’s because I wasn’t constrained to reading things designed specifically for kids my age. I’m convinced that it’s because I embraced reading as a subversive act.

There was another kid in my class, whom I’ll call Charlie, who was also a voracious reader. He hit upon a bit of genius, and in looking back I have to give him some credit for deepening my love of reading. There were movies that we were not allowed to see, and rightfully so. MPAA ratings on film came about right around the time I would have been in kindergarten. Cable television wasn’t a thing yet, so there was no sneaking peeks at things on HBO or Cinemax. Charlie, however, discovered the novelization.

The local library had a paperback exchange. Take a book, leave a book. No one checked to see what books you were taking. New novels were affordably within the scope of our allowances and lawn-mowing money and, again, no one was checking identification. We couldn’t get into theaters, but we could read the novelization of a movie. Even better, Charlie discovered that some movies were books first, and we could read those.

He and I started to trade, and coordinate. Are you buying this book? Then I’ll buy that book, and when we’re done we’ll swap. When we ran out of novelizations, we started reading other books that looked interesting. Somehow we got into “generational epics”, because they took place in what were to us exotic places. We were reading James A. Michener and James Clavell. It took us a while, and we didn’t understand all of it, but we did it. When we blew through those, we started reading spy novels — Ludlum, Deighton, Le CarrĂ©.

I know that some of you are reading this and calling bullshit. This, I think, is part of the problem with literacy in America. Not only do kids get told what they shouldn’t read, because the content is too sexy or violent or is objectionable to someone’s religious, political, or cultural sensibilities, they get told that it’s too hard for them. They are interested in reading something, but are told that it’s beyond them and discouraged from even trying. That’s part of why Charlie and I were having so much fun. It was forbidden fruit. We were being subversive.

Charlie and I got caught exactly once. We were in class, and we were supposed to be reading Johnny Tremain by Ester Forbes. I want to say it was 4th grade. The class was reading a chapter a day. We were given time during the school day to read, and we were allowed to take the book home. Charlie and I had already finished the whole book, so during class we each pulled out whatever doorstop of a novel we were working though. The rest of the class were in the early chapters, but we had been told that when we finished — I think she meant finished the chapter, not the whole book — we could read anything else. So we did. Charlie told her that he’d already finished Johnny Tremain, so she asked him some questions. He knew all of the answers. She did the same with me. Then, still not convinced that were were reading adult novels, asked us questions about the books we were reading.

We answered every question to her satisfaction.

She never bothered us about it again.

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  1. I did a lot of reading in class when I shouldn’t as well as reading things that were suppose to be ‘beyond’ me. Even better was the fact that my father had done it at my age. So anytime the teachers complained, he had my back. At our local library they had children and adult sections. You could get access to the adult section if your parents signed an authority form. I got that access when I was 7. But I totally agree about the popular attitude in America to children’s literacy being wrong. Fortunately I had great parents.,

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