First Experiences of Reading


In a recent autobiographical essay, “Sidestepping the Known”, published in the Cordite Poetry Review, the Australian experimental writer and new media artist Mez Breeze recollects a formative experience from her early years:

‘When I was in my late primary school years, I was shunted into an accelerated reading program… As part of this program it was decided that I should be given special privileges in order to join the primary public library… I grabbed the first three books located there [that I could reach], all by an author I hadn’t ever heard of: Brian Aldiss. The section I had stumbled into was Science Fiction. This simple act of selecting those books [written in a genre that would soon become an enduring favourite] shifted something. My life trajectory tilted…’

What are your first/most formative memories of reading and encountering books? Was it in a library, a bookshop, or exploring the  bookshelves at home? You can send me entries by email ( or post them here as comments.

9 thoughts on “First Experiences of Reading”

  1. my parents were both librarians, our house was full of books, and every saturday morning we went to the library to exchange piles of books. i think we read every single book in the Dunedin Public Library’s children’s library.
    memory 1: i was about 3 years old and we were visiting family friends. i picked up one of their children’s picture books and began to read aloud. my parents’ friends were astounded and impressed by my reading skills – and so were my parents, until they realised that i wasn’t actually reading (or was i?); i knew the book already and was reciting it from memory, filling in any gaps by looking at the pictures. it was a very convincing performance 🙂
    memory 2: sitting on the verandah steps listening to dad reading The Hobbit to my older sister; i was too young to follow the story (3 or 4 years old), but sitting in the sun and listening to the words was pleasure enough in itself.
    memory 3: dad was the medical librarian, and he used to bring home medical text books which we kids often took an interest in. these books had dense text in small print, and detailed illustrations – anatomical diagrams, photographs of grotesque deformities, microbiological pictures and so on. he would bring home scrap paper from the library photocopy machines for us to draw and write on, and we would find all kinds of bizarre and lurid medical information on the back of our pictures and stories. our diet of childrens’ literature was balanced with medical texts.

  2. First book I can remember was Sam Pig stories by Alison Uttley. I remember giving one of her books about The Boggart to my son Richard but he did not appesr interested.

  3. First experiences of reading
    My home was far from bookish, not till I got to work on it; and I only filed it with books; but there was a passable respect for written and spoken language. I was read to and talked to as if I understood.
    A nominal aunt was kept away from me as much as possible because she would say things like “I’ve come a long way to see you on a chuff-chuff.”
    I remember one day asking my mother to teach me how to write my name. She resisted on the grounds that, when I was five, I would go to school; and they would teach me properly. (Ha!)
    I persisted and she relented: I could read somewhat by the time I went to school, thanks to my mother.
    I don’t remember much more than that. In reading terms, I was often left much to myself in class and I dug steadily through what was available.
    I remember, when I thought about it, not wanting to be six. I didn’t like the number. Nowadays I’m not terribly keen on being an age that isn’t a prime number; perhaps it was that, although I doubt I had the concept of prime numbers that early. I must have read things when I was six but cannot remember.
    When I was seven, I sat down in the armchair by the two or three bookshelves we had; and, by some means, I took out Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. It was inscribed to my mother, with a page reference from which one deduced that the book was an unbirthday present.
    My mother found me reading it and asked if it might not be “too old” for me; and I asked what that meant. With that cleared up, I judged that it was fine, told her that and that I was enjoying it.
    I believe my father had to be told and that he said encouraging things. I was taken to the public library and began to catch up on everything which had been written since things started. Yet I obsessed about Alice, and her adventures through the looking glass, and have reread them many times although less and less as I have grown older.
    It changed me. I had met puns and other verbal games before; but, as I recall, only in the spoken language. It seemed to me sane in a way that anything else I had read was not.
    As I see it now, it was that book which started me reading.
    [I decided yesterday to write this memoir today. I might not have remembered.
    There is a shelf in my local train station where one may leave unwanted books for others. Among the few there this morning was a copy of Alice. Usually it’s books of people falling in love implausibly or murdering each other, all fairly badly written. This edition,from the Children’s Golden Library carries an image of an Alice who is much too adult; and made up; and generally no better than she ought to be.]

    Lawrence Upton

  4. From

    Mr Mitchell: ‘As a kid I wasn’t so keen on reading, but I don’t know what caused me to have that. To me, at the young age it felt like a chore, like being forced to do it when deep down, you wanted to do something else. But later in my school life before moving to college, I picked up “The Godfather”, which is still a old book. So I suppose I grow up reading crime thrillers and that is what I write among other things. I mostly read in that genre, which is dark and bleak but always something human somewhere inside with the characters. ‘

    W.Goepner: ‘Myself as a young child I did not like to read. I so enjoyed it when someone else read to me. I could get into the story without stumbling over the words. In my days of grade school or grammar school, we were taught to sound out words phonetically, I still have the problem with spelling because of that. So yes reading was a chore.

    The teachers by my seventh year saw that I was some what board with school and when tested, I was above average on most everything, except reading. In my state history class I was given these readers digest readers, they had three to four stories and questions at the back of each I needed to answer. There I became a reader but not as proficient as I am now. That proficiency came in my tenth or eleventh grade, when I took a Science fiction/Fantasy class rather than English. There I discovered the Hobbit and many of the other fictional works, to stir my imagination. That still was not my pinnacle for my obsession of reading, therefore writing.

    I was in my late twenties and had a great deal of time on my hands and a little money to go to collage. It was there I was lead into the books and RPGs, I almost did not have time for my studies. I managed to scrape out a 3.75 GP average anyway. ‘

    KJay: ‘As a child I loved horses (still do) and the first book I remember reading over and over again was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. Nothing profound, but I simply loved that book. In my teens I started reading really quite a lot and I have memories of reading till two or three in the morning and having to get up the next morning to go to school. I mainly read fantasy and historical fiction then, I think.
    Now, I still have that copy of The Black Stallion and read it every few years. I still like it! ‘

    Riptide: ‘Yeah, I never truly read much of anything those elementary days. FOr projects I’d read two chapters and maybe skim the photos if they had any. Somehow I managed to make it into the high end reading group, like literally surpassing all the other students with my reading skill. Don’t know how that happened seeing as I was supposedly dyslexic way back when.

    I think the first book I remember reading was something called Road Trip then Saint Paws, which I always called Santa Paws. Well… I think that was the title. Middle school I really read in a frenxy ‘

    astroannie: ‘I stole a book from a library when i was in third grade. It was my first week at a new school. We went to the library–it was my first experience being told to pick any book I wanted. I found one–an 8th-grade level math book about why bubbles are round and similar things. I was told I could not borrow it. Okay, when no one was looking, I added it to my belongings and took it home.

    It taught me that it isn’t always anyone’s business what I’m reading. ‘

  5. Intriguing project.

    I first started to read on my own at about 2 or 3–I loved the book Go Dog Go and had it read so many times to me that I just kept reciting it. Then I realized the letters corresponded to words–and I found the same letters and words in other books we had. I was reading more easily than I could speak by the time I got to first grade. I read all the ones we had in our home, including some college texts. I didn[t understand a lot, but I liked to read them anyway. I also snuggled up with all the books they had in pre-school and kindegarten, but these got to be pretty boring after the first few weeks as I recall.

    On our first day of first grade, the teacher actually gave us a thicker book. I was thrilled and had Dick and Jane all read and sorted in about a half an hour. When our group came up to the front of the class, I politely told the teacher I had read the book and would like another one. She questioned me for a bit on it. Paused. Then gave me a magic piece of paper–a Pass to the Library. And a note to the librarian. I could pick out one book a day, any book I wanted. Heaven achieved at a very young age.

    Deena Larsen

  6. My mother was Dutch and learned English when she came to England as a war bride. I cannot recall her reading much to me.
    A book that made a big impact on me was ‘Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ which was given to me by an aunt. The other big influence had been a play – ‘Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead’ I think I was in my late twenties.

  7. In the effort to remember my early reading experiences, I instead remember smells of places: the damp of my grandparents house in Clitheroe, the classroom in my primary school, the campervan in devon. I can’t remember learning to read or write. I was read to a lot as a child, I love my parents for that. Such a variety – Spike Milligan, Lewis Carol poems and songs. Astrid Lingren, Joan Aitken, Alan Garner. I also recall my younger brother (who had a strong sense of pathos) reciting from the book of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, with a forlorn look on his face. Later we went on long camping holidays and we would be read to in the evenings: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. Tolkein. These are some of the books I remember. What I know, is that I learned to read with books designed for the purpose: Janet and John; Topsy and Tim; the ladybird books of fairy stories. I’m not very good at reading words off the page/screen and I’m a horrible speller. I am a pretty good listener though. Recently I signed up to an audio book club – and find I can ‘read’ all sorts of things I had previously struggled to attend to. Last year I “read” Marx’s Communist Manifesto, for the first time on the treadmill at the gym, and Emma Goldman’s On Anarchy, while driving 3 times a week to a particularly un-free workplace. Being free to move my body and eyes as I “read” liberates me to make more connections, to comprehend the layers of meaning and tone.

  8. I was in my first year at school, in the Infants, in Mrs Thurston’s class. We were reading in pairs. My partner was Jill Marshall and the book we were reading was, I believe, Janet and John. I remember it was red and the covers were of a kind of wrinkled and pitted soft card. The recollection is a strong one, which means I have probably mentally rehearsed it so many times it is completely unreliable, but I am sure it was red. This distrust of my memory is compounded by the fact that when I “remember” that day, that hour, I seem to see it from above. I seem to see Jill Marshall and me from some distance, sitting there at the desk, underlining each word with our fingers as we sang it out together. There were pictures too. A merry-go-round? I remember, too, that it was sunny in the classroom, a large airy room with a high ceiling and tall windows in an imposing building which I think probably pre-dated even the first world war and which sat on the top of one of Sheffield’s highest hills.
    I remember the thrill of toppling headlong into the words. I seem to remember the frisson of recognition of “the” and “a” and “and” and possibly of names too. There was no stopping us and I felt like a co-conspirator as we deciphered away, though, of course, I could not have articulated that then.
    Suddenly, shockingly, we hit the buffers. Neither of us could say the word before us on the page. Neither of us could even begin to imagine the sounds it called for. Dismay and disarray. I’ve no idea how long the unhappy pause lasted but one of us must have finally put up a hand or gone to the front to ask Mrs Thurston, a fierce looking but essentially kind person, what the word was. The word was “for”. Of course we recognised the sound immediately and we must have picked up and continued, although there the bright memory closes.

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