An Early Start

Edith Wharton was “reading” before she knew the alphabet. As a young girl she found Washington Irving’s 1832 book Tales of the Alhambra in her parents’ library and discovered “richness and mystery in the thick black type”:

At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to ‘make up’), noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit.

Only later did she learn to value books for their substance rather than as vessels for her own imagination. “[M]y father, by dint of patience, managed to drum the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table, absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for improvisation. My immobility attracted attention, and when asked what I was doing, I replied: ‘Reading.'”

(From her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance.)