Tuesday, September 20, 2011

21: Reading

One of the best things about childhood was all the reading I got to do. I was privileged to have parents who read to me every night at bedtime, something I was later surprised (and saddened) to hear wasn't what all literate parents did for their children. All my cousins, at least on my mother's side, were read to, too, so I'd come to assume that it was a built-in component of childhood.

(If I was disturbed that not every child got read to, imagine my response not long after when I read the newspaper for the first time and discovered that not every child gets fed, sheltered from the elements, or protected from harm.)

So I'm thankful that my parents saw it as important that I learnt to read as early as possible, perhaps so that I'd stop pestering them to read to me. I'm thankful that my childhood was a time of relative financial stability in my family when my parents belonged to a club that had a good children's library. I liked that the adults' library had James Herriot, but I had to get my accomplice (also known as Pops) to check his volumes out for me because those stuffy post-colonials wouldn't let anyone under 13 into the library, no matter how quiet and reverent. I'm thankful that my nanny's family had 50 years' worth of Reader's Digest. From those yellowing pages I pieced together a view of how the world had moved on in the decades since the war, just as much through the advertisements as the editorial. The magazine introduced me to some of the authors I still admire now: Torey Hayden, Alex Haley, Erma Bombeck.

If I had to pick one favourite from the childhood library years, it would be Capyboppy by Bill Peet: an illustrated first-hand account of living with a pet capybara. It was written way before the exotic pet trade was the illegal, dangerous, irresponsible circus it is today -- or at least, before we became aware that it was dangerous and irresponsible. I was a kid. There were nicely drawn pencil sketches of a gigantic rodent terrorising pampered domestic cats so, unquestionably, a good book. We would check it out from time to time, sometimes getting my mother to phone the library ahead to reserve it for a long loan.

At some point my father, whose business at that time included a photocopier/printer distributorship, must have decided the serial borrowing was getting ridiculous so he photocopied the entire book and bound it into our very own copy, right down to the illustrated cover plate with a picture of Capy sitting resolutely in his inner tube. Over time my father became a staunch anti-piracy advocate, and I eventually followed. But you still can't get me to let go of our family's bootleg copy of Capyboppy, possibly even after I inevitably buy legit copies for myself and for my brother's offspring. It's hard to let go of something you can hold, concrete evidence that my father did try. He did want to be nice to his family. Those are the things that help me to remember that he always has and he does still, when at times the opposite seems to be true.

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