The Book You Don’t Read . . .

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“The book you don’t read won’t help.”

— Emmanuel James “Jim” Rohm, 1930-2009.

American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker.


Do you remember the day you learned to read?

I learned in first grade at St. John the Apostle Catholic School. “Back in the day,” kids didn’t learn to read until first grade. Unless they were precocious, and few of us were, because precocious wasn’t “necessary.” Kindergarten was for coloring, painting, musical instruments and crepe-paper flowers. I learned the alphabet song, but I certainly didn’t know the sounds the letters made.

In Mrs. Smith’s first-grade class, we were handed a primer with a picture of Dick and Jane on the cover. For months, we recited letter-sounds. Finally, the day came to string those sounds together. A boy stood up and began doing just that. I was clueless. A girl stood up next and did more of the same. Don’t call on me. Don’t call on me. I have no idea what’s going on. Then a boy, just one seat away, stood up and read. I looked down at my book, on the verge of tears. And suddenly, I was following along. I could read.

My mother told me that I read the entire book to her that night. All six pages.

When it came to school-required reading, I was all over it. Every grade was divided into three reading levels, and I consistently read well enough to qualify for the top group. At the end of third grade I even won the award for best reader!

I read a Little Golden Book at the grocery store every time we went. Then put it back on the rack when my parents finished shopping. I thought my parents were broke, and I didn’t want to obligate them with something they couldn’t afford.

My family didn’t go to the library. I went with a friend once, and I was baffled by the entire set-up. The librarian asked me if I wanted a library card. I declined, not knowing the rules or the price.

Later on, my parents ordered books through a catalog: Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Greek Mythology—books that introduced me to characters I would remember the rest of my life,  making me feel “in the know” when others referred to them.

I loved the funny papers and the advice columnist Ann Landers. At one point, we received two daily papers. “Dear Abby” was in the afternoon paper—I deemed her column second best. Ann’s advice was always better. And comic books! Archie, Betty, Veronica (hated her) and Jughead. Sugar and Spike. (But no Spiderman or Batman.)

In junior high, I finally became friendly with the Dewey Decimal System. The two Catholic schools I’d previously attended didn’t have libraries. Each classroom had shelves with books I never looked at or brought home. But in seventh grade, I discovered the author Rosamond du Jardin. What? You never heard of her? After I picked up the first du Jardin book, I proceeded to read all seventeen syrupy novels.

  • The Tobey and Midge Heydon series: Great 1940s and ’50s stories capture the essence of the malt shop era.
  • The Marcy Rhodes series: You’ll love watching Marcy learn about love and life.
  • The Pam and Penny Howard series: The lovely twins! So different — and so alike! What boy gets which twin?

Many of my favorite books are the pop culture picks of the time: The Thorn Birds, Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Shogun, The Pillars of the Earth, The Nightingale. My favorite memoir is one I bought at a yard sale in paperback: A Girl Named Zippy. I had no idea it had been a New York Times bestseller. I liked the picture on the front and the blurbs on the back. You CAN (sometimes!) judge a book by its cover.

However, my point is not what I’ve read, but what I haven’t read. Fret not, I won’t be revealing my list here. I’ll keep it on my computer. And on pieces of paper in various drawers. I failed to read the classics, except a few as assigned reading. I am still behind on the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. I didn’t read Little Women until I was in my thirties.

I am guilty of reading less than I’d like because I spend so many hours writing my own book, a memoir to be published in early 2018 (I hope!). It’s a better reason than binge-watching Game of Thrones, but that doesn’t ease my conscience.

What I know about the books I didn’t read is that I’ve missed so much. Every time I am inspired, entertained, enlightened, or amused by a book, I am reminded of what I would have missed if I hadn’t picked up that title. It prompts me to wonder about all the knowledge I never gained, tucked into books I never read.

I need another lifetime to catch up. The problem is, there’ll be more books written in that lifetime, too.

What about you? What books can you recommend that have inspired, entertained or enlightened you? Which ones do you still plan to read?


Follow Ann~Marie Magné:

Immediate past vice-president of the Writers Alliance of Gainesville (WAG), Ann~Marie Magné, serves as a critique pod leader and as WAG’s social coordinator. A Florida native, Magné is working on a memoir of love and survival.

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10 Responses

  1. Russ Roy

    I can’t remember when I didn’t read. I read everything I could get. One interesting aspect is reading books before they were “dumbed down” by “well meaning” editors and publishers. I was lucky enough to read some original editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” novels. These were written in a florid Victorian style English. There were sentences that began like this: “With the utmost celerity the Ape Man leapt upon the lion’s back…” “Celerity” and all those other wonderful words are gone from most books now. Too bad. For many years standardized tests had a vocabulary component and I always did very well on them thanks to Tarzan and other books with wonderful words in them. Jack Reacher doesn’t do anything with celerity. His loss.

  2. Joan Carter

    When I was a kid, I thought I had to read everything. By the time I got my BA, I decided at least all the classics, and I bought a book case full of the “Great Books.” I have read a chapter in one of them. I have a long list now on my computer of want-to-reads, none classics. So many interesting books, so little time. One of life’s tragedies.

  3. Bonnie

    Love it! I, too, learned from the classic Dick and Jane series. What a difference a generation makes. I taught kindergarten and first grade reading with wonderful texts that had real stories! In the end, we all learned to read. Thanks for sharing your personal journey to literacy, Ann-Marie.

  4. Susie Baxter

    I never got acquainted with Dick and Jane. My first grade reader featured Alice and Jerry and their dog Jip.
    Robinson Crusoe was the first book that captivated me.

  5. Wendy Thornton

    I did love the book Little Women. My mother loved it so much she gave me my middle name, Jo, from the book. Still remember the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, and so many that inspired me through the years, A Wrinkle in Time, Books by the Bronte Sisters, Catcher in the Rye, I could go on for weeks! We all should continue to inspire young readers – thank you, Ann-Marie!

  6. Skipper Hammond

    Dick and Jane taught me and my friends to read too. But they didn’t teach us phonics. The method in vogue when I was in first grade, in 1941, emphasized comprehension and fluency not “sounding out” letters. We learned to recognize written words as if they were pictures.
    One day I was reading to Mother at home and had to ask her what a word was. I didn’t recognize “better.” She was shocked that I couldn’t read it. I’d just read the word “letter.” Again and again, she pointed to the word I knew and asked me to read it. Again and again I recognized and said “letter.” Still I had no idea what “better” meant or how to say it. So she pointed to words like “boy” and “ball” and asked me to read them. Those were easy words. Yet I had no idea what “better” meant or how to say it. Mother thought I was being stubborn and I thought she was being weird. Then she pronounced all the words herself while pointing at the b’s and l’s.
    Oh! Wow! Suddenly there was light. And spelling made sense, too. I set about figuring out the sounds for all the other letters and soon I could read words we hadn’t been taught. Then second grade came and “right” appeared on the first page of our workbook. Oh well. 🙁

  7. Joan H. Carter

    My first reader was “Sally and Billy.” I still have it. I read the whole series of “The Bobbsey Twins,” and I read my best friend’s copy of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Men” so many times that she finally gave it to me! She always called me “Jo” after the heroine of those stories. I loved Mark Twain too.
    About vocabulary: It was reading Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories that taught me to read past words I didn’t know. Shakespeare was a breeze after that.

  8. Cynthia Bertelsen

    I also learned to read in first grade – no one cared if you read at age three in those days. I regret that I waited that long; just think of how many more books I could have read with a three-year head start! It seemed that I just began reading shortly after the first few days of first grade. Miss Schmidt assigned me to the highest group of readers – there were three groups and no one wanted to be in lowest group, who BTW remained poor students all through school all the way to high school. She asked each of us to read a section from those awful Dick & Jane books, going around the circle, reading aloud. I always read the whole book before my turn came, it seemed. And then I’d be lost as to where I was supposed to take up the reins! As for influential books, there would be thousands, and I wish I’d kept a reading journal all these years. But perhaps I should mention Andries De Groot’s The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, one of my all-time favorites. Its lyrical prose tells the story of a French restaurant/inn in France’s Savoie region. It inspired me so much that my husband and son and I detoured on a trip to France to see it all

  9. Ann-Marie Magné

    Susie, Wendy, Skipper, Joan and Cynthia — thanks so much for your personal “learning and loving to read” stories. I had no idea Alice, Jerry, Sally and Billy existed. Who are these imposters?? Cynthia, too bad no one thought to give the lower reading group a boost. Imagine the lost potential. We often had pairings of Level 1’s with Level 3’s. I don’t remember what the 2’s did! And I don’t remember if it helped.
    You all had much more sophisticated taste at much younger ages than I did. Impressive.

  10. Ann-Marie Magné

    Russ, Joan and Bonnie – I don’t know where my individual responses went – I replied to each of your notes separately. And though I can’t remember what I said, be assured they were very clever. Thank you for taking the time to comment.