Reading, Writing, & ‘Rithmetic’

- by Karen Tintori

A number of my writer friends share my urge at this time of year to get ready to go back to school.  The minute the air begins to smell differently, the sunlight slant changes, the nights fall earlier and with a hint of chill, and we’re itching to go buy stacks of clean notebooks, fresh pens and boxes of unsharpened pencils.  Fresh learning and new beginnings are synonymous with Fall.

Most writers I know are also voracious readers and have been since childhood.  It’s either a job prerequisite, or an early predictor of the career we’ve chosen.  Though I’ve never taken a poll, I’d wager we were all in the top reading groups in grade school.   Ours were named Groups A, B and C, and the teacher called us to the front of the room group by group to practice our reading skills.  A friend I spoke with last night — now a reading specialist teaching special ed — was raised out east.  Her groups were called the Airplanes, Trains and Cars.  They even had a lower group, called Tricycles.  Ouch.

I spent most of my free time reading when I was a kid.  Each week, I’d walk to the library about seven blocks from our house, and check out as many books as I could fit between my linked fingers and my chin.  Before I turned thirteen, I’d read every book in the children’s section of that library, and became indignant when the librarian refused to let me check any books out of the adult section.  She told me to go back and re-read the children’s section.  Even then, I was loathe to re-read a book.  I realized early that I’ll never be able to read all the books I crave to read in one lifetime, so saw no point in wasting my scant reading time revisiting a book.

These days, sadly, my reading time is even less.  Much of what I get to read is work related.  Yes, I’m still checking books out of the library on a regular basis — mainly research material pertaining to the books I’m working on.  Partly for fun, partly for research, I buy and read current thrillers and suspense.  It’s what I love to read and it’s what I’m writing.  And I’m usually reading two or three books at a time, one kept upstairs in the bedroom, one down in the kitchen, one in the car. 

My affection for words started early.  My mom said I was speaking in sentences before I was one.  Throughout grade school, I loved writing vocabulary words and definitions, relished composing sentences and diagramming them, had a ball with synonyms and antonyms, and won prizes at bridal and baby showers for scoring highest in the writing games.  By the seventh grade, I knew without question that I wanted to be a writer.  The former Sister Mary Theodora — my first editor, I’ve just realized — has my undying gratitude and affection for encouraging me when I was twelve.  I still keep some of those earliest writing samples, marked up in red with her comments, stored upstairs in my mom’s hope chest, and only wish she knew how directly she helped foster my writing career.

Oh, I was good in math, too, and loved it back in school, but in adulthood, the writing trumps dealing with  bills and checkbooks and bank statement and VISA receipt reconciliation and the stock market — every time. 

My fascination with words has been enriched by learning a smattering of other languages, and i wonder how many other writers like to play with words in other languages, too.  I grew up hearing my mom and her family speak Sicilian (when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about), my dad and his nonna speak her dialect from Sestola, a mountain town south of Bologna, in Emilia Romagna (because she never learned, or else, refused, to speak English).  I studied Latin for two years in high school and Russian for two in college and amazingly, always puzzled out the meaning of Russian idioms even though the direct translation of the words, one by one, was way far afield.  In adulthood, I’ve also studied a little Hebrew and a lot of Italian.  If I can’t read all the books I want to before I die, my next wish is to be half as fluent in Italian as I am in English. 

My maternal grandmother’s philosophic answer to most situations was, “Live and Learn.” which, in her Sicilian accent, came out a sing-songy “Livah Lurn.”  This Fall, aside from Italian, I’ve been seriously itching to learn something new.  Something about the air, the light — and the lack of it after eight in the evening — has bit me hard this September, taking me right back to my childhood.  Back to school season this year has awakened all those old anticipations of new knowledge.

So, a few weeks ago, when a writer friend mentioned a book she was reading on quantum physics written in lay terms, I decided to tackle the discipline missing from the title of this blog.  Science was never my forte.  Not in high school, not in college.  But with the CERN Large Hadron Collider in the news, and a strange gravitational pull dubbed “dark flow” pulling matter quickly toward it somewhere outside our solar system, I’ve decided that dipping my toes into an entirely new discipline was in order this fall.  I went out, and I found the book, and it made me happy.

So, I’m “going back to school” in science, sort of, this September.  And I’m excited about it.  I realize I’d probably be a lot better off studying something else I found challenging in college — economics.   But these days, quantum physics are two much less scary words.


  1. I loved it!!! I also spent much of my time reading as a kid. I also wanted to read all the books in the childrens section and I started out alphabetically. I decided it was the only way to be sure I was getting to every book. But somewhere in the A’s there was a boring writer or two and I realized the alphabet wasn’t a good way to approach the problem. From there I went to titles that looked interesting and I checked out as many books as they allowed at a time. At the Sherwood Forest Library on 7 Mile, there was a LIMIT! I think 3 books was all I could take. But as soon as I devoured those 3, I went back for more.

    For sure you have to be a reader to be a writer. I can see the evidence in my own kids, who were too busy with each other, and with all their physical activities, to spend much time reading. They are only “ok” writers, improving with each year. But I could write well by 6th grade. I know it’s because when you read, you absorb words, styles, techniques, nuances, etc And of course, you develop a love of words for the way they can make you think and feel.

  2. I think I have spent most of my life reading.
    My Dad taught me to read and write before I started school.
    I take a book with me everywhere, and average reading one book a day.

  3. One book a day? Oh, Estella, be still my heart.

    It took me years to figure out I always need to have a book with me so I can make good use of time spent waiting in grocery lines, the nail salon, the bank, etc.

    At the moment of death, I want to get back all those hours — heck, days — I’ve spent waiting in lines.