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How Sherlock Holmes Taught me to Read

I hated reading.

When I was in elementary school I detested assigned reading time. It wasn’t that I hated stories, on the contrary I loved a good story, but I hated searching out a reasonable length book, slogging my way through what felt like hundreds of pages, and being disappointed over and over by boring plots and characters. I also hated struggling through the text which, to me, was like walking through quicksand. I wanted a tale that would intrigue me, grip me within the first few lines and have me turning pages in expectation. I was a lover of mystery and adventure: two things that were sadly lacking in my elementary school library. I remember we had a small bookcase in the classroom where used and abused books were each bound down the spine in colourful duct tape. Red meant the book was easy, green was a medium difficulty and blue was hard. I never got to blue. I barely ever saw green. I spent most of my days going through the red taped books and feeling inadequate as other kids walked by with stacks of blue bound books. Thus, I hated reading.

Hearing a story, or better yet being read a story by my mother, was a completely different experience. I could imagine the characters. I was enthralled by the voices and her vocal lull during the narrative sections. Also, mother knew how to catch my attention with the right book. Two words: Nancy Drew. The books were perfect for two reasons. One, they presented a mystery about a girl, like me, and two, each chapter ended on a cliff hanger. Thus, I was desperate to know who committed the crime and we were always left in a precarious position that required the reading of just one more chapter. As I got older, my appetite for mystery encountered the icon that was Sherlock Homes, specifically the BBC Granada series with Jeremy Brett. I sat wide eyed and enraptured as he unwound logical puzzles that made my child’s mind spin. I was addicted to the chase, to the mystery, and the big reveal. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to save the day and reveal a hidden truth. But, I still hated reading. It was always a slog through pages stuffed with words without focus or purpose. Although I could push myself through a few chapters of Nancy Drew, it was done solely for the elusive mystery.

One now infamous day, my mom and I went to the local library. Despite my annoyance with books we frequented the place weekly and my literary diet was decent if not healthy. While standing in line my peripheral gaze was piqued by something familiar: a pipe. When I turned my head, the remaining image came into clear and recognisable focus. It was the silhouette of Sherlock Holmes on a large, 500-page tome. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. On the ruby red cover was a second silhouette of a woman. I reached out and grabbed the book. It was huge. Mammoth for a child in grade six. We walked to the counter and checked out our items: movies, Disney books, comics and one beekeeper tome.

At home, I cracked open the book with curiosity. I loved Sherlock. I loved mystery and this book seemed to promise both. And then I was met with the best opening line I had read in my entire short life: “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book—” (King 1). My mind exploded. This was what reading was supposed to be like? An overwhelming pull into the pages, a buzz of excitement, of mystery, of desire and a thrill where you could lose yourself for hours by following the adventures of ink on paper. I knew this girl, this Mary Russell. I knew this place. I felt like I was suddenly, surprisingly home. I had no idea what a Sussex Downs was, but I didn’t care. The book opened my eyes to the love of learning and of discovering an adventure between crisp, white pages. I devoured the text, flying through the whole thing in a few days. Over twenty percent of the words in the book were unknown to me but I didn’t care. I figured things out using context and sentence construct. Besides, I couldn’t stop to get a dictionary; there were villains to capture, clues to follow and Sherlock was there larger than life and I knew him. I had always known him. I felt we had known each other all our lives and had only now met face to face.

A child psychologist or pedagogical expert might argue that I was learning all along and my Beekeeper moment was merely the culmination of years of struggling and hard work. It’s possible. All I know is that one day reading was a chore, something I begrudgingly engaged in, and the next day it was an activity I couldn’t get enough of. Beyond the enjoyment, my understanding, speed and literary dexterity improved drastically. Overnight I went from struggling through a Nancy Drew chapter book to running full tilt through an adult mystery novel that could double as a door stop. As the now full-grown adult who experienced this strange phenomenon in her childhood, I attribute it to a well written story that captured my imagination and the magic of a larger than life character: Sherlock Holmes. So, yes. Sherlock taught me to read. I’m not sure how and yes, he often said “Come, Corrie. Grab a book. The game’s afoot.”

Keep Writing,

C.L. Shoemaker

Source: King, Laurie R. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. St.Martin's Press: New York, 1994.

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