In 1982, when I was a 9-year-old fourth-grader in the Reno suburb of Sun Valley, Nevada, I read 73 books in one month, raised over $5,000, and was the National Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-thon Champion.
The read-a-thon’s representative arrived in a linen pantsuit and was clearly from Reno proper, slightly alarmed to find that one of Reno’s main drags could be chased straight through to this, a neighborhood that dead-ended in the desert, both literally and figuratively. She might have drawn the short straw by having to make the trip to Sun Valley Elementary School, but she was soothed by Mrs. Wells, the teacher I adored for her relentless glamour. She reminded me of Mrs. Hart from the TV series about the millionaire amateur sleuths, “Hart to Hart.” Soothed by Mrs. Wells’s perfect curls, the rep opened her briefcase and began by asking us if we liked games.
I loved games, especially the kind I could play solo, and the rules to this one were made to order. Step one: get adults to pledge cash for every book I read during the month. The cash would benefit the M.S. Society and I was glad for that but it was my benefit – all that time spent reading – that held my focus. Step two: read books. As the presentation moved from educating us about M.S. into how to fill out the forms and raise funds, the other kids squirmed and yawned, but I hung on our visitor’s every word.
I absorbed the rep’s fundraising ideas, took my enrollment form home, and sat down to make posters for my parents to take to work. I drew myself: a girl with a perfectly round head and sharp pigtails holding a book. On the book’s cover, I wrote “Help Tupelo, Help M.S.”
The posters’ rickety drawings might have been good for sympathy, but it was my dad who brought in the dough. While I sat down to my first stack of books – all Judy Blume – my Dad put his gambler’s jive to work finding me pledges. He set the ante himself, five dollars a book, and when his friends and business associates suggested a quarter or a dollar instead, they’d be shamed by talk that questioned their masculinity, their financial security, their very humanity. By the time Dad was through, there were several pledges matching his, and one super-macho, financially-secure philanthropist who’d pledged ten dollars a book.
I feel sorry for these high-rollers now, tricked into altruism by their gambling buddy. Could they have looked at my blue-collar family, my dad the tattooed machinist in a leather vest, my mom a bartender in tight tip-getting jeans, and understood the chance they were taking? In all areas of life, not only gambling, people make assumptions based on the easiest tells. I’d call that a shame, but all’s fair in love and fundraising and the read-a-thon was a glorious month for me. I had a free pass from chores and to antisocial behavior that raised eyebrows the other 11 months of the year: The read-a-thon gave me the excuse to read as many books as I could. And I did. I read 73 of them. All of Blume’s, all 14 of Baum’s Oz series, every Dahl our library had, and a series about Elven warriors. (The details of these are lost, except that the hero was Adion, the namesake of my next cat. Adion never failed to come when I called him, streaking like Elvish mist across the sage from some desert hunt.) It was fantastic.
The winning, however, was awkward. It was awkward to have reporters at the house and I was embarrassed by my mom’s excitement, awkward to have my friends at school eat my library dust. Even the trophies were awkward, featuring the read-a-thon’s odd trademark, a schnauzer in a Sherlock Holmes style trench coat and hat, emblazoned on shiny gold. Most of all it felt awkward to be rewarded for what I wanted to do more than anything in the world: read.
I grew up in a family of readers. I’m the only one left now, and when my mom died, distraught teen that I was, I threw my read-a-thon trophies away. I know now I shouldn’t have done that, but understand that they were too painful a memory of one of the few forces that brought my family together. My parents both read all the time, too often, I suppose, since I still struggle at the art of casual dinner conversation, having spent almost all of my childhood dinners reading while my folks did too.
I can remember my father’s first recommendation, not parent-to-child but reader-to-reader. Dad finished one of the grocery-store novels he favored, “Merlin’s Keep,” put it down and said those words that thrill every reader’s heart when coming from a trusted source, “You should read this, you’d like it.” He was right. In “Merlin’s Keep” the young heroine, a plucky orphan of the first order, is on a strenuous journey through the Himalayas, and if this wasn’t exciting enough, she not only rides a yak, she befriends it. To this day it is at the top of my bucket list: Befriend a yak in the Himalayas.
And yet, somewhere along the way, the bucket list born from reading about adventures came to include just finding time to read. So many of us have the following as our choral complaint: I just want to sit and read a book. Imagine with me, having a month to devote to reading. In the read-a-thon of this fantasy, I say we skip the posters. The only pledges we need secure are ones from ourselves, not of money, but of free time, to be spent as we wish.