Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First Memories: How Did You Learn to Read?

Has the experience of learning to read been studied from a psychoanalytic point of view? ... something I don't recall hearing much about. Odd, as in a literate society, it serves to merge us into the community, and exile us from it; shapes and strengthens the private voice of self-awareness, and chains that voice to a communal language. A primal bifurcating force, both individuating and socializing us. I think of recent posts on Spurious--is this what the writer re-experiences in leaving and reentering the human community as he writes? (for a link, see the following post)

What are your first memories of learning to read? The first book you read on your own? Family legends and personal memories.

A review of The Tin Woodsman of Oz on Counting My Blessings... got me thinking about this. Roused my curiosity... how did other people learn to read?

This was something that left a stamp on the rest of my life... contributed to making my first years in school utterly miserable. Bored to death, punished because I lost my place as we took turns reading in those awful first readers, I learned to experience myself as a kind of resident alien--stamped into my identity forever.

How did you learn to read?

I'd love to put together a collection of accounts. Post in Comments and I'll put them together, copy them into a running series of posts. Or let me know about posts on other blogs and I'll link them.

For me it was the Oz books, though the realization that I could read on my own came to me lying at the top of the stairs with a Donald Duck Comic Book... I ran to my father to show him...

I couldn't have been more than four or five years old. He didn't believe me. Told me I must have memorized the words. For a long time I wasn't sure myself. That rejection, too, a powerful early experience... so much of what shaped my life came from reading.

But it's true...

The Oz books were my Dick and Jane, before I was given Dick and Jane in the first grade.

I would sit beside my aunt, or on her lap, and she would point out words to see if I could remember and recognize them. First it was "and" and "the" and such, but gradually, following her finger as she read, I picked up, first more words, and then how to sound them out. I was reading on my own before I entered kindergarten.

For a long time I was not sure if this was but an invention of my aunt. I had assimilated my father's skepticism. But when my youngest son began to read on his own before he was five, I began to trust my own recollections. I do know that in the next couple of years I read all of the series I could get my hands on. I remember very little of any of them, but the cover of Tic Toc of Oz (my favorite) is still quite sharp in my mind--after 60 years.

With nothing to compare them to, I had no sense of how odd they were. This may explain more about my life than I would ever have realized without that review on Live Journal.


  1. My Dad taught me. I don't remember how old I was, but I remember my first book was one by Dr. Suess. My grandma had original copies of some of his books that were quite rare. I drew all over them so I doubt they'd be worth much now!

    I got obsessed with diseases and I remember either my mom or my dad reading me The Masque of the Red Death and I decided to take that to school for show and tell hoping the teacher would read it to everyone else. She didn't, so I remember trying to read it myself to my best friend. We were hiding from our teacher behind an exercise trampoline leaned against the gym wall so there must not have been much light (if we didn't hide she'd drag us out to the playground and make us play with other kids). I don't recall being able to get through the first paragraph.

    Lastly, I think I picked up some reading from subtitled movies. My mom didn't take me to many kid's movies, not because she wanted me to see smart ones, but because I don't think she wanted to sit through kid's movies. She absolutely hated Disney, I remember that. Since I seemed pretty happy just watching whatever she did, I saw a lot of bizarre foreign films and sometimes I got in trouble with other people's parents because I'd bring these things around to my friend's houses with no notion that most 7 year olds didn't watch R-rated movies.

  2. I've actually always had a strange relationship with words. I had learned to read before I knew what the words meant-- generally the other way around. In other words, I could read virtually anything out loud by the time I was halfway to 3. It kind of gave me a head start. The first thing that I remember reading were Greek myths that my father had sitting around...

    p.s. I know the livejournal interface kind of stinks, but I've been using it for so many years now that I hate to give up the bulk of my entries-- and I do like the ability to filter some stuff...

  3. Phonetics without the sense... sort of like reading in tongues.

    Hebrew prayers... yiskadal v'yiskadosh...

    Did you read them in Greek?

    I suppose not.

    On learning to read, how it shapes memory and identity: something I don't recall hearing much about. Odd, as in a literate society, it's both a primal experience of entry into the community and exile from it, shaping and strengthening the private voice of self-awareness.

  4. Unfortunately, my early memories of reading are something of a blur. I remember being able to read some newspaper articles at 5 or 6, a feat my babysitter liked to put on display for company.

    My first memory of "reading" a book wasn't one with a lot of prose though. It was a huge, beautifully coloured counting book that had descriptions beneath the pictures. I remember linking the image of the elephant (balancing a red ball) to the word beneath it. But that's just recognising words, probably, and for all I know the memory is half made up. I was 4 then.

  5. I'm rather late to this, but wanted to talk about psychoanalysis and reading. I don't think there is a theory as such, but the whole concept of reading is essential to the development of the subject, as the relation to language is grounded in the moment the child founds its identity. The Lacanian mirror stage is the best example of this: when the baby looks in the mirror and invests its sense of self in the image it sees there, it is effectively taking the image for the real. As it learns to do so, it sets in place the structure whereby it will take the symbol in the place of the real, which is the basis for all language usage. The child gives up bodily symbiosis with the mother in exchange for being able to possess her (and the other elements of the world) in language. Being able to give and receive messages, being stitched into the symbolic, is a vital part of subjecthood, and disturbances in our reading are often indicators of disturbances in our sense of identity (melancholia and depression in particular). Then some theorists, like Roland Barthes, suggest that experimental literature likes to play with our heads, because joyriding our psyches close to the edge can be a bit of kick, in its way.

    As for reading, I should also add, I can never remember a time when I couldn't, or when I wanted to do anything else. And that's all I can remember about it.

  6. "Joyriding the psyche..."

    That certainly describes what I search for in my reading.

    When I was a child, I heard the silent vocalization as I read as a voice--as almost something other, something heard, not from the outside but not quite myself.

    I lived in a large house with extended family. An aunt, my mother and grandmother would all read to me... and then there were visiting relatives, an uncle, great aunts. There was always a voice-over. A narrator.

    Writing is a way to recapture that voice... those voices. Until I hear the voice of the narrator, whether of poetry, of fiction, I'm just pushing words around on the page. When I'm able to inhabit the voice, the writing comes alive for me.

  7. I honestly don't remember ever being unable to read. I know I wasn;t born with the ability so I must have learned it at some point, but I certainly don't remember it.

    The first thing I remember reading was an old book about science, for kids. I think it had belonged to my father when he was a child. I remember it was falling apart. There was a section on the solar system, and another on dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I remember I used to read about the planets and T-Rexes over and over.

    It didn't matter to me that I had read the same thing the day before. I read that book every day, over and over, and never got bored.

  8. This is a very interesting coincidence - the first books I read was also the Oz series, though in its Chinese translation. And I also started reading them when I was probably between 3 - 5, and I also suspect that's how I learned reading...Neither of my parent seems to know how I learned reading - they know that they didn't teach me - and my first memories about reading are about reading the Oz series, so I'd say those are my first books and how I learned to read.

  9. Wow... which books did your read? There were so many. I loved Tic Toc of Oz.