The limp confessions of a late bloomer

I was not an early reader nor, once reading became a feature of my mental landscape, an avid one.

As a child, I loved being read to, and I dazzled the adults around me with my capacious memory and ability to recite thousands of lines of poetry. But by the time I turned 14, I had forgotten all of them and I began to be a source of disappointment to the literary-minded grownups around my parents (and secretly to my parents as well).

Despite my early ‘prowess’, I didn’t discover the pleasure of reading until I turned 18 or thereabouts. But then, like a Pentecostal tongue of fire, it settled over me and hasn’t left me since. To this day, I feel mild anxiety whenever a few days have passed without me turning pages and caressing the book covers like the body of a beautiful woman.

But, to go back to my literate beginnings, nothing would have suggested my slow, very slow, progress in opening up to the world of books. I learned how to read and write quite effortlessly. I don’t remember the day I could say, yes, I can read, but I do recall the ease with which I came to master not just writing letters, but writing beautiful letters during what at the time was still known as the ‘calligraphy class’, one of the mandatory modules of primary school tuition.

I also recall teachers being quite fond of my reading diction, as I was often asked to read passages to my peers, something I did with panache. I enjoyed performing without being in any way literate minded.

When other pupils looked forward to their summer holidays, I dreaded them because of the daunting ‘summer reading list’, a now-in-hindsight quite overambitious list of books the school asked us to read and summarise over the roughly three months of summer break. That, and not maths problems or dealing with bullies at school, taught me the value of strategising and innovative problem-solving, as I looked for ever more sophisticated ways of showing to my teacher and my parents (who were effectively the teacher’s minions at home) that I had read the books without ever reading them. I shared some of my stratagems with my mates, but most of the time I kept things to myself. Before Cliffnotes, Reddit, Blinklist or GPTs, this level of deception required serious brainpower. Looking back, I regret not using my powers for more lucrative projects later in life.

A friend of mine, whose name I shall not mention though this might bring him unequal fame, could speak for hours quite convincingly about books he’d never read. He never taught me his trade, which meant that I had to find proprietary ways to deceive my tutors.

But all of this to say that despite all the resources poured into this kind of subterfuge, I was not drawn to the books whose synopses and digests I pieced together. I didn’t find any pleasure in abandoning myself to a universe that extended beyond my very present concerns, pleasures and sources of enjoyment. I didn’t care for drifting into make-believe, suspending disbelief and letting myself be guided through unsuspected worlds which might have a thing or two to teach or dazzle me.

That came much later, and with a vengeance.

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