I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My mother tells me that she’d first thought I memorized certain Dr. Seuss stories, and it took her a while to figure out that I could read independently. I was 3.
My father’s IQ is probably less than 100, but not much. He has exceptional conversational fluency in languages; put him anywhere in the world and he’s exchanging stories with cab drivers and waiters in less than a week. He’s an equally fluent and improvisational musician. When he learns something it stays learned: he spent two hours explaining to nine-year-old me how airplanes flew and to this day, that’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten. Ask him about any major plane crash that occurred before 2000 (the year he retired after 45 years in airline operations fixing planes or planning fixes) and he can tell you exactly who was at fault, why, and what changes were made to reduce the risk of reoccurrence. Unlike my highly concrete father, my mother is a better abstract thinker. She mastered technology easily, moving from shorthand secretary to working with faxes and computers in the 70s and 80s,and moved up the ladder from temp secretary to executive secretary for bigwigs at a major technology company, to network support technician for her last few years when she got tired of secretarying. She has a somewhat higher IQ but none of the improvisational fluency of my dad; you can see this best in their individual approaches to cooking, at which they both excel. Dad never uses recipes, Mom rarely ventures off without a cookbook, both of them produce meals you’ll remember forever. Dad’s second wife got a college degree in her 30s and made the Dean’s list but works as a skilled technician in the same job she had before college; Mom’s second husband has two doctorates from a top ten university, spent his life in a high-octane brain job, but his real love is carpentry and gardening, which he did as a side business before and during retirement. Politically, Dad is a blue-collar Democrat, Mom a hippie-dippie liberal.
At no point did my blue-collar parents take any steps to develop my intellect, even though they were fully aware that I was at or near genius IQ. My mother refused to allow me to move up a year in school because she’d been advanced and didn’t like it. My parents could have sent me to Phillips Academy, all expenses paid; they decided not to. They saw no difference between my going one of the top public universities schools in the country and a local state college except cost, although they did think I should “major in business” (hey, it was the early 80s). I went for cost and in those days, that was a terrible call. In my twenties and thirties, I resented their decisions which seem inexplicable today. However, two master’s degrees at top-tier universities (which took up a lot of my 40s) have convinced me that the only thing I would have gotten from a better education is more amusing stories about how much trouble I caused the schools and how glad they were to get rid of me.
Anyway. Up to a few years ago, I said I was a book and TV lover. Now I know I’m just an obsessive who needs to keep a busy brain. Regardless, I consumed information reflexively as a result of keeping my brain busy. I grew up overseas with no TV, but when we came home for summers I was literally glued to the set. I watched game shows, Bonanza, Medical Center, SWAT, and Scooby Doo until age 10, when I discovered movies and stayed up late to watch whatever was on. (I discovered Star Trek reruns at 12).
TV-watching never interfered with my reading; I read 2-3 books a day (1000 WPM, clocked and reclocked), before, during, and after TV. On weekends during the year when I had no TV, I’d easily go through 5-7 books. I quickly read through the school library. No public library overseas and no English bookstores in that country, and I could only talk my parents into buying me five or six books at airport bookstores, which I ran through in a couple days. I read the back of cereal boxes and Clorox bottles, which was convenient when my baby brother appeared to have taken a swig from the jug. (Unfortunately, we lived in a place that didn’t have ready access to milk, the recommended remedy. But he survived.) My grandfather, bless his heart, used to send me a huge box of paperbacks, picked at random from the general and genre fiction section, which took me a bit longer to run through than books for kids my age—and they had far more interesting plots. So when I ran through Gramps’ gift, I turned to my parents’ books; I know everything there is to know about the works of John D. McDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis. Just ask me.
Some early reading memories:
- The Middle Sister, age 5—odd little book, but I’ve found that many remember the plot, if not the story. One of my earliest memories of a “chapter” book; an older cousin was reading it. Most of my reading at this age were junior high basal readers that I stole from school. I hadn’t figured out I could read my parents’ books, and everything else I’d ripped through a year or more earlier, apparently.
- The Trojan War,age 6: Not until years later did I learn that The Iliad didn’t have the Trojan Horse scene in it, but ended with Hector’s death. I found parts of the story confusing. Not the gods, I figured out what was going on, there; the gods had magical powers and subdivided areas of interest. (An agnostic from birth, best I can tell, I had no bias for or against polytheism. The Greek pantheon seemed an entirely reasonable way of explaining things. But then, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between God and Santa Claus.) No, what confused me was why all these battles seem to happen one at a time. What was everyone else doing while Hector was killing Patroclus or Achilles was killing Hector? How did the Greeks have time to discuss who got Achilles’ armor? Where were the Trojans while the Greeks were building the horse? I developed this confused idea of an arena, with the kings watching each scheduled battle—I must have seen a gladiator fight on TV. One thing I was clear on, though: everything was Paris’s fault.
- King of the Wind, age 7–I am the opposite of artistic, but this image fascinated me. I read every Marguerite Henry book I could find, but I only enjoyed Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Born To Trot.
- Madame, Will You Talk?, age 7—we were in a small town in Portugal and I’d run through my dozen books. Desperate for something to occupy my brain, I picked up this romance-thriller when my mother had finished, thus meeting my earliest genre title. I didn’t quite understand the plot, which had something to do with Nazis and Jews and getting revenge for a Jew that was killed—apparently, Nazis killed Jews? I looked it up later when I got home; it may have been my first intro to WW2 and the Holocaust, although I can’t be sure. I suddenly understood a lot more of Hogan’s Heroes, though. I read Airs Above the Ground a year later, because it had a teenage boy in it and not as much love stuff. Mary Stewart, by the way, is still with us at 96. Holla!
- David Copperfield, age 7—Suddenly Dora’s gone. David’s sad. What the hell happened to Dora? I had barely figured out what happened to Emily. Something dire with Steerforth. But where did Dora go? I had to read “Another Retrospective” three times before I realized that “Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me?” meant Dora was dying and when Agnes was sad, she’d died. Wow. Couldn’t you be more specific? I read fast, I miss things.
Years later, I was quizzing my son on A Tale of Two Cities, which I hadn’t read, and asked him what happened to Madame Defarge. “I don’t know; she just disappears.” “Naw, that can’t be true. I’d have heard if she just disappeared.” So I leaf back through the book. “Oh, here it is. Miss Pross kills her.” “What? Miss Pross? No way? How’d I miss that?” “The bastard buried it in the middle of a paragraph, like he always does.” “That’s annoying.” “Tell me.” (My son’s ACT reading score: 36.)
- The Black Stallion, age 7—This was the kind of stuff I was looking for when I read all those Marguerite Henry books! Unfortunately, he just kept writing about the same damn horse. But the first one is an awesome read. Still. I tried nibbling seaweed a few times, but ick.
- Oliver Twist, age 8—I figured out that Nancy died. In fact, I think this was the first time I saw the word “corpse”. But how? He just hit her. You could die from people just hitting you? It didn’t take a gun or a knife? Or a car? Or jumping off a cliff like in Snow White?
- The Happy Hooker, age 8 or 9—She didn’t seem very happy. But I wasn’t clear what a hooker was. When I figured out it was linked to prostitution, I looked that word up. Still not entirely clear. I had a vague idea that Nancy in Oliver Twist did something like that, but again, not happy. Hmmm.
- The Quick Red Fox, also age 8 or 9, after The Happy Hooker—ah. Some women don’t charge, some women do. I wasn’t quite sure for what, but McDonald was actually much more informative on this point than the Hooker lady. I wasn’t sure which McGee thought was preferable, although he never seemed to pay.
- Nerve and Enquiry, age 9—I read Dick Francis books from 1971 until 1999 or 2000; I think the last one I read was To The Hilt. I have fonder memories of him than any other writer, and not just because of his unreasonably perfect heroes (which made much more sense when I learned that his wife wrote most of his books), but because he was a living writer in my life for nearly 30 years. From these first two books, I learned that horseracing wasn’t just about who ran the fastest, but about “steeplechasing”, which involved jumping over fences and mud pools. With the horse. I also learned that marrying first cousins was a bad thing, and that jockeys were a lower “class” than trainers. But I wasn’t sure what “class” was. Not the school kind.
- Cards on the Table, age 9—I’m reasonably certain this was my first Christie novel. Death on the Nile was second. I didn’t realize it was a bad idea to peek at the end until I was 12, and by then I’d read the entire Christie canon. All those endings, spoiled. But I learned more about this “class” thing, which also had something to do with “titles” (not books). I thought “class” complaints were restricted to the English until a distressingly short time ago. I also became familiar with a number of poisons and confirmed that yes, just getting hit on the head could kill you.
Not a complete list. I know I read Madeleine L’Engle and Laura Ingalls Wilder during these years, and all the Hardy Boys canon. (The Twisted Claw was the bomb.) I read Little Men at 7 or 8, and eventually Little Women. I also read a lot of history books and almanacs. And some really strange books that I can’t remember clearly which is extremely annoying. But these are the memories that seem relevant.
What’s my point? As I’ve mentioned before, my measured vocabulary has spiked hard to the right side of the bell curve, leaving the 99th percentile in the dust since I was first tested at 8. And my vocabulary is far weaker than my analytical reading skills. While I scored a 730 on the SAT (which at that time was 99+ percentile), I scored an 800 on the English Lit Achievement Test (known now as the SAT subject test), which even now is a rare achievement, and much less frequent back then.
And yet, as I hope this little tale has revealed, I did not live the life of a middle class child with that literacy-rich environment that gives children the background content knowledge. Or, based solely on my story, E. D. Hirsch has it wrong:
[Students learn new vocabulary] by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that “annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,” he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.
I am living proof that “understanding the gist” does not require background knowledge, that some people, like me, acquire content knowledge through the books that they read and TV that they watch. In fact, it’s clear that I, god save me, constructed my knowledge of the world through the books that I read. If you were to go by me, the progressives have it exactly right—teach them to read, and knowledge will follow. But you know, progressives are never right about their idealism, so let’s laugh off that possibility and return to Hirsch, who is right, but for the wrong reason.
Hirsch isn’t the only one emphasizing the importance of specific instruction in content knowledge because of poor environment. Lately, advocates on all sides of the debate have been focused on Hirsch’s argument (aka the Core Knowledge solution) “knowledge-rich” environment of the middle class and higher kids, the “language deficient” environment of low income kids, and how the latter group is starting behind.
One might think that these guys think academic achievement is purely a matter of environment, that individual ability has nothing to do with it.
But then, this essay is long enough. More later.
Update: One of the more idiotic commenters I’ve ever run into on this site argues that what I describe is a typical, middle class knowledge-rich environment. Sigh. I called her an idiot. But I’ll update with a bit more information, just in case there’s other zealots who think they’ve got a point.
My reading was considered incredibly weird by everyone who knew me. I was teased constantly. I was “grounded” by losing access to any reading material; my father once upset me terribly by pretending to throw my book out the window of a Greek hotel room when I wasn’t in bed by 10:00. (He hadn’t, but he didn’t let me have it back for a day.) My parents did not have a lot of books, they bought books to read on planes when four kids allowed them the time. They did not read otherwise, but (like me) rarely threw things away, so there were ten years of books lying around the house. The Dickens books were from the library. I was far better-informed than my parents were in a distressing number of subjects, but granted them total expertise on cooking, music, sports, and airplanes—and would accept their knowledge of current and recent events as somewhat reliable but needing confirmation. I was, undoubtedly, incredibly annoying.
As for the traveling, it should be clear that my father worked for the airlines so we travelled for free. My parents were, and are, extremely adventurous (particularly my mother, who just came back from a month in South Africa). We traveled everywhere and saw everything on the cheap. I hated it a lot of the time, although I’m glad now I did it. I did not gain any content knowledge from the travel, although I learned flexibility and patience.