Sarah ─ avid reader at 96

I recently interviewed Sarah. She has three children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She’s always enjoyed reading and writing stories and has been part of a writer’s group at her local senior center. She participates in the public library “home book” program where the library mails her a bag of books (mostly novels) every two weeks.   

Do you remember when you were first able to read on your own?  I don’t recall being aware that I was learning to read but was very aware at some point that I could read. Reading opened up a whole world for me. We took a daily newspaper and in those days the comic section on Sunday came in black and white ─ but when you blotted water on it, it became color. I was fascinated with that and especially remember reading the comic strip blurbs on my own from an early age, especially The Katzenjammer Kids.[1]

Did anyone read to you as a child?  I don’t remember anyone reading to me.

Did you have many books and other reading materials in your house growing up? My father had quite a few books but mostly in German. He subscribed to National Geographic magazine beginning around 1916 or 1917.[2] There were maps in it and all kinds of stories with pictures. He kept all the magazines neatly stacked in a bookshelf. I remember going through those from a pretty early age. We also went to the library to read and check out books. It was right around the corner from the elementary school. When I was around 7 or 8 years old, my younger brother tore some pages out of a library book at home. I cried because I couldn’t take it back to the library torn. My mother blamed me, not him, because it was me who brought the books into the house.

What was reading instruction like at school? I went to elementary school, junior high school, then high school ─ don’t remember a specific class in reading. We covered various topics in school and were assigned a certain number of pages to cover ─ had to read some parts of those assignments, of course. If I found the topic interesting, I would keep reading—more than I needed to. I also read a lot of my older sister’s books ─ whatever she was reading for school assignments, like the classics. This was how I first read the classics. But without any guidance about reading, I just read for the story line.  I still do that today ─ read for the enjoyment of the story.

Do you think you were a good reader then? I must have been. I recall taking a national test in high school and after graduation receiving a phone call from the school principal’s office. The principal told me I scored high enough on the test that he thought I should plan to go to college. But he noted from my academic record that I had deficiencies in English grammar and he thought I should take a grammar class over again ─ that it would help me in college. But I didn’t do that ─I wasn’t interested in being a scholar. My older sister was sure she should be a scholar ─ and went on to be a teacher. I didn’t really receive any counseling or guidance about what to do after high school─ wish I had.

What did you do after high school? After some time of sitting at home, I realized I couldn’t sit there and do nothing. The impetus might have come from my mother to come up with a next step. My father decided he would pay for me to go to a secretarial, vocational-type school for three months to learn to be a secretary. So I went. I learned how to type, take shorthand, and learned a number of practical skills. I actually learned to write shorthand but couldn’t read it back because my handwriting wasn’t very good. After the program, I went to an agency where they sent me to temporary jobs. This was the tail-end of the depression, so a lot of companies were not doing that well. In-between jobs, I sat around the house and read books. Ever since I was in junior high school, I had wanted to go to art school. When I first started working in these temporary jobs, I went to the local Art Institute and signed myself up, and went to the first couple of classes. My father found out where I was and he told me that “being an artist was immoral” and I was not allowed to go to school there. So I had to leave. Finally I got a more permanent secretarial job at a factory that made uniforms where I worked directly for the owner. This was a job I really enjoyed. My sister also suggested I take classes at the local college in the evenings after work. So I did. I didn’t take classes geared toward a degree of any kind ─ just took classes I was interested in.

When you were married and had children, how did you approach reading to your children?  I was adamant about reading to our three children. I especially would make up stories and draw pictures with the stories and my children really liked this. We also enjoyed poetry reading and especially limericks. Limericks rhyme and they have rhythm. My children especially enjoyed the “music” in words. My husband loved to read to the kids too. He would read adventure books like Zane Grey, animal books like Black Beauty. The words were beyond the kids but the thought was not beyond them. The kids would sit on the floor and he would be very dramatic in his reading. We also went to the library a lot as a family. And when my husband was away at night for work, I would wait up for him after the kids went to sleep ─ usually I was reading. I have always found that where the stories were, the ideas were.

Has your reading been affected as your eyes have gone through changes with aging? Over the years, I just got glasses so have never really had much of a problem reading. And when I had cataract surgery, my eye-sight ended up better than it had been for years. So reading over the years and now is not a problem. I only found out recently about the big-print books you can get at the library. These are really helpful for folks.

What do you think about audio books having someone read stories to you?  My daughter had a gadget that inserted a tape and it reads books to you. I did that for a while. But I didn’t like it as much as when I read by myself.

What kind of books do you like most to read now? I enjoy mostly novels and reading about science. When I was young I read all those National Geographic magazines and have come to really enjoy reading about discoveries in science.

Do you like science fiction or science?  It doesn’t matter if it is science fiction or realistic science – I find the realistic things interesting and like good stories too.

Do you know people who are playing a major role in raising their grandchildren – who are also trying to help them become good readers? Yes, there are several people at the Senior Center who are helping their grandchildren with their homework and helping them learn to read. They say, ‘I don’t remember doing this in school but here I am learning it now.’ We all laugh about it. But in many ways it is not the same as it was when we were young.  Sometimes the interpretations we had from our generation don’t apply to following generations. For example, my father tried to teach me how to do algebra when I was in high school. But his method was not the method my teacher wanted me to use, so the teacher marked me down for doing “old fashioned math.”  So I had to learn the newer method.

Do you have final thoughts on reading, on literacy? Reading is not only about the story although that is what I enjoy so much. You can read a book and learn a lot. When you can read you’re never alone. When you can read you can always step into another world. It takes you out of a very mundane way of living and opens a whole new world. I don’t usually like to tell people my age but the lady from the public library who oversees the books-through-the-mail program recently called me and I told her my age.  I told her that the books she was sending me have opened up a whole new world, opened new doors ─and made such a difference in my life. Through these books I can read what goes on in other parts of the world, read what happens to other people. I like to think about the word, “literal” in the word, “literacy.”  It is for real. When you read something and it is well written, then it becomes real. Whether it is science fiction or realistic science writing, for a short time you are in another world, you are in someone else’s life. That’s what literacy can do ─ make thing real for a time.

This concluded my interview with Sarah. I was struck by her recognition that though storytelling has long been a key motivation for reading, she’s long turned to reading too to open new doors to learning. Had she not shared her age, I would never have guessed 96.  I’m thinking that her nine decades as an avid reader have helped keep her mind agile and spirit young.

[1] The Katzenjammer Kids is an American comic strip created by the German immigrant Rudolph Dirks and drawn by Harold Knerr for 37 years, from 1912 to 1949. It debuted in 1897 in the Sunday supplement of the New York Journal. Dirks was the first cartoonist to express dialogue in comic characters through the use of “thought balloons.” After a series of legal battles between 1912-1914, Dirks left the New York Journal and began a new comic strip, first titled Hans und Fritz and then The Captain and the Kids. It featured the same characters in The Katzenjammer Kids, which was continued by Knerr. The two separate versions of the strip competed with each other until 1979, when The Captain and the Kids ended its six-decade run. The Katzenjammer Kids is still distributed, making it the oldest comic strip still in syndication and the longest-running ever.

[2] The National Geographic Society was founded in January 1888, and the National Geographic Magazine first published nine months after the Society was founded as the Society’s official journal.