Reading = Breathing

Photo of boy reading that we use to promote our bookstore...

When the young woman came into my bookstore yesterday, I greeted her, and knowing it was her first time in the store, asked what kind of books she liked.  “Journals,” she said.

Assuming that she was looking for a book she could write a journal in, I answered, “We only sell old books…I tell people a new book in our store is about my age, and I’ll be 50 in July!”

She laughed, and explained that she was actually looking for stories from other people’s journals…now we were getting somewhere!

I checked our database, and made some suggestions.  As I showed them to her, she revealed a stunning fact to me: she loved books, but had a lot of difficulty with reading, writing, and spelling.

As she told me her story, I choked back tears: she was dyslexic as a child, and no one in the school system caught it.  She was also left-handed, and the teachers used to try to make her use her right hand (and actually punished her for using her left one!).  She never told her parents what was happening.  She talked about having trouble with a job she’d had at WalMart where she had to match barcodes to items…she couldn’t do it!  It hurt to hear her describe herself as “lazy.”

The woman then pulled a laminated placemat out of her bag and showed it to me…it had the alphabet on it, with dotted lines and arrows showing how to trace over them…I’d bought similar mats for my children when they were learning to print at age 3 or so.  I was almost speechless…this woman was about 30!

She expressed an interest in history: “I wonder if Cleopatra ever wrote about her life?”  Pointing to Samuel Pepys’ Diary, she asked who he was: “I see this book a lot.”  I told her the limited amount I knew about Pepys.  The woman also liked royalty, referring to Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth.  “I looked all over Coles for a biography of the Queen, and they didn’t have it!” she said.

I spent the next half hour scanning the shelves, looking for books which would be relatively easy to read, and interesting but not too juvenile.  It was tough!  She was enthusiastic about the thick boys’ historical fiction books I showed her by G.A. Henty: “Now that’s a book,” she’d say, hefting them in her hand.  She liked the colourful bindings too.

Eventually, she settled on Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse: it was historical (the true story of a daring escape from a German prison camp during World War II) and written in fairly straightforward short words.  I mentioned that I’d seen the movie when I was a kid, and never forgotten it.  We also had the followup book, The Tunnel.  As she was paying for the book, I asked if she was getting help with improving her literacy.

“No,” she answered.  I urged her to go to the Saint John Learning Exchange, which is right around the corner from our store, and provides free literacy training.  I have a couple of friends who work there.

“It’s free, they’re really nice, and they will help you,” I said emphatically.  The woman thanked me as she left.  I hope she goes to see them.  Sadly, she is one of many people who have literacy issues in our country.

After she was gone, I couldn’t stop thinking about the things I wouldn’t have in my life if I couldn’t read and write: my children (I met Kaylee and Anna’s father in college while studying Broadcast Journalism, and Hope’s father while ghostwriting a book for him and another guy); Jim (we met on Plenty of Fish three years ago); the bookstore I co-own with my dad; the Book Club I belong to; and this blog, which has been one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had!  I think of the thousands of books I’ve read over nearly 50 years, and all the things I’ve learned from them!  I would be a totally different person if I hadn’t learned to read and write!

How would your life have been different if you hadn’t learned to read?

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79 Comments

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79 responses to “Reading = Breathing

  1. What a touching post Wendy! I do hope she goes to that Exchange and gets some help. It is so sad that she was forced to use her right-hand like that :( It happens often enough in India too and surprisingly, educated people are no exception! I guess it goes to show how suspicious we are of anything that doesn’t conform to the perceived ‘normal’, whatever that is. This struck a chord with me because Ishaan is left-handed and nothing gives me more pleasure :)
    As for the answer to your question…Wouldn’t have been much of a Life at all, I reckon. None at all!

    Hugs, H.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Harsha…Hope is also left-handed and has learning disabilities. I’ve always taken reading for granted…I can’t imagine not being able to do it! Hugs, Wendy

  2. Without the ability to read, I would have had a life with little joy. I remember as a child devouring books–Little Bear books, Children of Noisy Village, and my all time favorites, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (I have a first printing) and Jane Eyre. All of these worlds would have been lost to me! Reading makes life complete and it’s true what they say: reading nourishes the soul.

    • I too devoured books as a child, Monica…six books from the library every week from the time I was about 5 years old! It is truly as essential to me as breathing…thanks for reading! Wendy

  3. nancy

    I can’t imagine. Thank you for spending time to find just the right story for her. Hopefully, she’ll get the help she needs and return to get more wonderful books from you.

    Excellent post, BTW.
    Nancy

  4. I have a friend who is dyslexic, and left handed, but an avid reader. He has a lot of trouble writing though, and jokes with us that it is a darn poor speller who can’t think of more than one way to spell something. He is an architectural draftsman and has an amazing ability to conceptualize in 3D.
    Dyslexia comes in many forms, and hopefully this woman will get the help she needs to unlock her potential…

  5. Jess Witkins

    Oh, Wendy, this is one of the most beautiful posts you’ve written, and you’re a very talented writer! This girl’s story is so touching and I’m glad you treated her with kindness and offered a learning tool for her. I hope she does check the place out. If she likes to read now, think how much she could improve if she got a little help! You’re right that literacy is still an issue. I get so saddened when I hear about budget cuts in schools for their arts and language programs. Even now, when I’m work with EDUCATED adults, if we have a meeting and take turns reading around the table, it’s stunning to me how many people speak the wrong word cause they’re reading too quickly maybe, or don’t know how to pronounce words they’d know if they read a little more.

    Here’s what I then think of. The publishing houses are asking writers to severely cut down their word count because people have shorter attention spans. I’m not saying every book needs to be as big as Stephen King’s The Stand, but are we doing ourselves an injustice by cutting funding, cutting availability of books, and the number of words we’re exposed to? It’s a big web, an eco-system of language, and one thing affects all the others.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Jess! I’ve been shocked at how many people I’ve encountered over the last three decades who were “educated”, but had difficulty reading out loud, constructing a simple sentence, or spelling a two-syllable word correctly! When I was looking yesterday at the text of children’s books written a hundred years ago, it struck me that many of the writers of adult books today have “dumbed down” their writing. I know that the education system is strapped for funding, but perhaps a return to the basic “Three R’s” wouldn’t be a bad idea… Wendy

  6. Wendy, You are the best. It is such a problem and your willingness to help shows the true spirit in you.

  7. What a touching post…I can’t even imagine a life without reading and writing! I really hope that she had the courage to seek the help you mentioned.

  8. I was surprised to learn that the woman was only thirty, because I thought the practice of forcing students to write with their right hand was abandoned many decades ago. However, I wasn’t surprised at all that she’d had trouble finding a biography of the queen. Last year, my son and I tried to buy a book about Canadian government and couldn’t find any — even at the public library — but all were well-stocked with books about Justin Bieber and other celebrities who haven’t been around long enough to even have a life story. Our society is itself becoming more illiterate, so your customer has a difficult task on her hands. But if she’s lucky enough to keep running into people like you, I’m sure she’ll be okay.

    • I’m terrible at determining people’s ages, Charles…thirty is really a guess! She said she’d gone to school in Saskatchewan… If you’re ever stuck trying to find a book again (and aren’t in a time crunch), abebooks.com has 140 million books around the world…it’s the main book site that we list on. We also have lots of books in stock on Canadian government… Thanks for reading! Wendy

  9. I can’t even imagine how different my life would be if I hadn’t learned to read. Everything would be different, but especially my confidence.

    I like to know things and learn things. So I read.

    I like to escape and travel. So I read.

    I like to live a thousand lives. So I read.

    I like to understand my fellow humans in this struggle. So I read.

  10. Wendy–
    what a beautiful love letter to literacy and the freedom it brings. How special that you spent the time with her, and were able to point her toward some additonal help.

    If I didn’t have books…well, I might have just shrivelled up and blown away…when my parents divorced, I had A LOT of time all by myself in the summers with my dad, far away, in another state from my mom and all my friends…

    whole worlds opened up for me…thoughts I’d never thunk (;)) and places I’d never heard about, all there for my hungry, sad eyes and soul.

    I didn’t feel so alone.

    blessings
    jane

  11. You have to tell us the rest of the story if that woman gets the help she needs and comes back to tell you! Our lives would be so colorless without books. I used to teach, and every semester when I had my students read Fahrenheit 451, they left the classroom with a greater appreciation for books. Enjoyed your post.

    • Welcome to Hammond River, Coming East! I’ll be sure to keep you posted if she comes back for the other Williams book… I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 myself…thanks for reading the post! Wendy

  12. Hi Wendy. Great post. The other thing we are all missing out on is bookshops like yours, where the owner takes time to find out exactly what you are looking for. We have been taken over by the multi-national book sellers and there are few, if any, owner operated bookshops still in existence in our Capital city.
    I am glad you were able to help this woman and impressed with her desire to read no matter how hard it is for her. How could this flame have remained unnoticed through all the school years?
    Illiteracy is alive and well in our part of the world and it’s hard to fathom how children can go through all those years of schooling and come out unable to read and/or write. We constantly read of budget cuts to education (and that other biggy health) and wonder whether our ‘leaders’ consider the effect on people’s lives and the enormous effect on the future of our country.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad you appreciated the post, Judith…literacy is one of the things that Canada hasn’t done well with (that hurts me to say that), although I suspect that the situation is much the same in the U.S. Wendy

  13. Oh Wendy – I forgot life without books. Dull, gray and definitely lacking in vitality. When my Father became blind in his 80s he said that the biggest thing he missed (after seeing his daughters and their children s faces) was reading. An avid reader all his life he had to make do with audio books. Nowhere near as enriching as reading for yourself, he said.

    • My mother was also sight impaired for the last 20 years of her life, Judith…she too depended on audio books, and didn’t find them nearly as fulfilling! Wendy

  14. Stephanie

    Hi! I’m glad you helped the lady as much as you could! It’s sad how many people get slipped through the system.

  15. Wendy, that was very interesting, but the thing I related to the most; when you work in a retail store as you and I both do, especially a smaller independent store, you often meet the most fascinating people. I’ve had so many interesting conversations over the years with people who were in town visiting or passing through. I’m sure you can relate.

  16. What a fascinating question. Frankly, I can’t conceive of not being able to read, and I think I have a pretty good imagination. I guess I would be even more into the visual arts than I am now. I pretty much feel like the visual stuff I used to do 40% of the time and the verbal 60%–though now that I’m blogging I do a lot more writing than I do visual arts. I feel so sad for your customer!
    Kathy

  17. I can’t imagine not being able to read. Teaching students how to read and seeing their progress was one of the most exciting parts of my teaching career.
    I retreat to reading a book whenever I need to get away from the real world. I suppose I would instead use my camera instead but I needed to be able to read to learn new things with the camera.
    I would know a lot less if I didn’t know how to read. I enjoy reading to learn new things.
    Interesting question for sure…Very thought provoking.

    • I suppose, Jeanne, that one would hope to be good at something else…a trade, or art, as Kathy mentioned…you are doing some beautiful work with your camera! Wendy

  18. Wendy, this is so touching! My father was punished for trying to use his left hand, back in the 1920’s. I have tutored many dyslexic students over the years, and have tried so hard to view words as they do. I try and steer them towards audiobooks as well– which I swore off for years, myself, but am now hooked! In the car, I listen to everything from Sophie Kinsella, to E.M. Forster.

    • Reeling…I actually never thought of audiobooks being a good thing for people who are dyslexic…I myself have great difficulty being read to. I need to see the words on the page to comprehend them… Wendy

  19. I hope she goes too. Sad that she’s unable to read well/much yet. I’m glad my left-handedness was encouraged. We tend to see the world differently, and my family always told me how people in other parts of the world were forced to be righty.

  20. Oh Wendy, what a beautiful post. And weren’t you the perfect person to be there for her. I can’t imagine my life without reading. My head was always stuck in a book (when I wasn’t drawing). Books taught me that life had no limits, a concept that was in direct opposition to how I was raised. Thank goodness for books.

  21. teachers who were control freaks and not educators. how sad that they leave people scarred for life

  22. I feel the same way about reading.
    If I can’t read a book, I read signs, labels, other people’s newspapers.
    Can’t help myself.

    I’d never before given it a thought how precious that is, being able to just read.
    I know I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am if I wasn’t able to do so.

    Really hope your lovely customer took your advice :)

  23. She sounds like an exceptional person who has a lot to say to the world. Great post!

  24. Wendy – what luck she found you! I don’t know how I could live without books. Don’t think it possible. I hope your new friend does what you suggested. xo iz

  25. Where would I have been without books? I probably would have gotten much better grades in school since I spent a lot of the day skipping class in favor of reading in the library. When I had to go to class I read a book hidden under my desk.
    The day I graduated high school was one of the most melancholy of my life because I knew never again in my life would I have time to finish 200 books a year.

    • So you were bored in high school too, Paul? I never skipped (I saved that for college), but I was bored out of my ever-lovin’ tree! I’m glad you were a reader, because you’re one helluva writer now! Wendy

  26. jacquelincangro

    It’s such serendipity when we meet someone who reminds us of things we accept as second nature or take for granted. It’s a gift really.

    Books are my lifeblood. They open me up to new worlds and help me to be more compassionate. I’ve been all over the world and all points in time for the price of a book.

    This reminds me of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go. She’s a librarian who’s never been out of the country, but feels like a world traveler because she reads. :)

  27. I saw a few kids punished for writing left handed while I was in catholic confinement, I mean school.

    Words are such an amazing currency, I can’t imagine not having them.

    She’ll be back, Wendy.

  28. ““Now that’s a book,” she’d say, hefting them in her hand. She liked the colourful bindings too.” For whatever reason, that sentence struck a chord with me. I easily visualized someone ‘hefting’ books. Nice.

    You made the comment that Rob was a good man. I must say, you are a good woman. Thank you for taking the time to listen.

    ~ Lenore

  29. I didn’t open my mouth until I was 14. The characters in books were the personalities I tried on until forced to come out and play in the real world.

    Sadly, I have nieces and nephews who are dyslexic, who struggle in a system not designed or equipped to manage or teach the skills they need to thrive.

    Her wandering in to your store was a gift. To her, to you, and to your readers by reminding us to appreciate how enriched our lives are through reading the words of talented authors.

  30. This is a subject that I feel stringly about. Literacy is something that should not be an issue in our society. My hope is that one day everyone will be able to read and write. For those of us who can, it’s difficult to fathom. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I couldn’t read. I read a lot every single day.

    This post is a good reminder, Wendy, that there is help available.

    • Thanks, Laura…the literacy statistics in the Maritimes are pretty disturbing…according to the New Brunswick Literacy Coalition, only 16% of New Brunswickers have no issues with literacy… Wendy

  31. Jeanne Heuer

    Give us books! Give us wings!

  32. Wow. That’s a sad story. Shame on her teachers for trying to make her write with her right hand. That sounds so 1950s. I hope she takes your advice. Sweetie used to volunteer with an adult literacy group. She helped organize the annual corporate spelling bee fundraiser. Every year, they’d invite a student to talk about how the program had changed their lives. You’d have to be pretty cold hearted not to tear up (and cut a check).

  33. I also hope she took your advice, Wendy. It makes me so sad to think of those that miss out on reading (either by choice or circumstance). I don’t know what I would do without that outlet.

    Thanks for sharing your story~

  34. Interesting. Cole did not read a word and I mean not a word until the beginning of 4th grade. Since we were at a Waldorf school he just continued to be one of the kids who was in the process of learning to read. I won’t say it did not make me anxious at times but mostly I agreed he simple was not ready to meet the world through the spoken word. His classmates never thought anything of it but I had to protect him a lot from family members and friends who were certain he SHOULD be reading. My mother pointed out constantly that I read when I was 4–I am pretty sure its the only subject in school I ever excelled in. Anyway…On the 6th week of 4th grade–Cole started to read by the time Christmas came around he had read most of the Harry Potter books and now as a teen is seldom without a book. Because he remember being able to not read he once expressed it this way—“Everyone assumes reading is a wonderful thing but they forget that reading also makes the whole world a lot louder place. Words are everywhere. ” Keep in mind we were also a no television no computer family until Cole was almost 12. I love to read, I want everyone to get all the help they need especially adults who the system has short changed and shamed –however, I also want the world to stop pushing children into a world they may not be ready to take in because of education pressures and time-lines.
    Sheesh–this is much to long but this subject is near and dear to my heart…I love to read–mostly penny dreadfuls.

  35. Wow. That is amazing and causes me to be much more thankful for the education I have received. I remember my dad telling me horror stories of how he would’ve been left handed. However, the nuns used to slap his hand with a ruler every time he wrote left handed forcing him to switch to his right. As a result his writing is practically illegible.

  36. How my life would be different if I hadn’t learn to read:
    Hmm… well, I certainly never would have been a Language Arts teacher, that’s for sure, which means I would not have moved to Chicago, nor would I be in a graduate program for Library and Information Science. I would not have all of my journals since age 7 to reflect on, and I would have never been able to reconnect with my boyfriend after we hadn’t spoken in a few years since we went to middle school & high school together! I would have never been able to research all of the running information and training programs, and probably would not have been able to complete a half marathon. Lest not forget I would not know the joys of staying up far past a reasonable bedtime snuggled in my covers with my kitten reading a marvelous book. It’s actually quite sad to think of all the wonderful things about my life that would cease to be.

    Reading your blog entry made me think of Patricia Polacco when she writes her own story in “Thank You, Mr. Falker”. How fortunate Ms. Polacco was to have an instructor who took time to notice her struggles and help her!

    • “snuggled in my covers with my kitten reading a marvelous book.” Your kitten reads too? LOL. Thanks for stopping by, Alligators…it sounds like reading has been a huge part of your life! What grades do you teach? I’ll have to look up the Patricia Polaco story…I’m not familiar with it… Wendy

      • Oh yes, he loves to read. Sometimes I read to him, but mostly he reads to me :)

        I taught fifth grade for a year and eighth grade for another (I’m licensed 4-9). Currently I’m nannying while I work on my master’s degree! Let me know how you like the Polacco :)

  37. I have dyscalculia, kind of a dyslexia of spatial sequencing, directions and math. Some in my family have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. I can’t even imagine not being able to read!

  38. I stumbled upon your blog this afternoon and read this post to my mom, who is a reading tutor here in the States. She works with many adults students who have dyslexia. She asked me to reply to this and let you know there are colored transparencies that she works with that can really help with this difficulty! The transparencies can be placed over the words on a page and most times it has helped the students she works with to read. For some reason it gets the words to hold still, stop moving/flipping, etc. If you’re interested, she offered to send you more information about them, so maybe if you see this customer again, you could let her know about them. We weren’t sure if they had something similar at the literacy agency, but wanted to offer the information.

    Thanks for posting this!
    -A-

    • Thank you (and please thank your mom too) for this very generous offer, Amelia! I haven’t seen this lady again, and have no guarantee that I ever will. However, I will mention the transparencies to the folks I know who work at the Learning Exchange! I appreciate the info! Glad you stopped by! Wendy

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