In the cool shade under my father’s grand oak, I sat down. The torrid claws of summer held our village hostage, but I—a little girl then—seemed to have slipped through its hot palms. I had skippingly escaped into the garden, my father’s sanctuary, to find refuge during the hottest hours of the day. Here in the shade, the thick mosses tickled my naked legs. A slight, shy breeze played with my hair. Every now and then, the breeze was bold enough to move up the golden hair on my wiry arms, wrap itself around my little torso, and squeeze a bell-like giggle out of my belly. With one hand, I brushed a few golden strands out of my face, and with the other one, I held my blue little book. I had borrowed it form the local library. Cold and smooth, it laid there in my little hand, patiently waiting for me to open it. In order to prolong this anticipatory moment just a little more, I sought to distract myself with the re-arrangement of my polka-dotted summer dress around my crossed legs. Then, cozily nestled into the arm-thick roots my father’s massive tree, I eventually opened my book to the first page.
Just as Ms. Roemmelt had advised us in German class ever since the first day of first grade, I started with the title. With utmost care, I caressed each of the two words initially with my little left index finger, then with my winking eyelashes, and lastly, with my slow-moving lips. Manifestly, all of these body parts assisted in this thrilling endeavor of solving the riddle. With vibrating vocal cords, I then gently lifted each syllable off the page, held it into the warm summer breeze, and eventually kissed it goodbye: “D-a-s k-l-e-i-n-e G-e-s-p-e-n-s-t” – “L-i-t-t-l-e S-p-o-o-k”. Joining the chirping birds high above, these two words twirled away into the blue forever firmament. Thereafter, to my surprise, their pure echo returned to me like a boomerang. Closing the imaginary velvet curtains around me, they set the stage for Little Spook, the baby ghost and protagonist of my blue little book. I boldly marched onward into the foreign world in which Little Spook lived, and everything grew progressively more mysterious around me. Little Spook was not like other ghosts in that he did not like the darkness. He feared it. I, prior to reading this book, had never feared the night. On the contrary, I always tried to get as much of it as possible. Under its black yet transparent veil, I read, wrote, and dreamt the impossible. That day in the moss, however, darkness was daunting to me for the first time. Through the power of words, I felt for Little Spook as he was desperately trying to find his way back home instead of scaring the residents of his town. I, too, hoped that behind each street corner, we would find first his street and eventually his house where all of his younger siblings waited for their bigger brother to tell stories about the human world. As a consequence of the interaction of the power of the words on the page and my imagination, I sunk deeper and deeper into this far-away place.
“Sophie darling, come on into the house, it’s dinner time!” I do not remember how many times my mother had repeated this phrase until it finally penetrated the impregnated air around me. Upon looking up to where my mother’s voice was coming from, I realized that I was sitting in the last rays of the sinking sun. The hot summer day was slowly subsiding, and I believed my blue little book to have been that moving force.
Many years after I handed in my first book review about the first book I ever read in its entirety without anyone’s assistance, I realized that yes, this book did indeed have certain powers that no other object in my room possessed. While my dolls and stuffed animals could and did speak, my blue little book entitled Das kleine Gespenst – Little Spook – transformed hours into minutes and minutes into seconds; it molded time as if it was play dough. Additionally, it turned the real world around me into a different world that only I had access to. Well, that is actually not exactly true. Some of my classmates read the book during Book Week as well and therefore had access to the same story; their pictures of Little Spook and its little town, however, were much different from mine. I was relieved about our different perceptions of the texts’ manifestations. For once, the boys could not make a competition out of everything that was happening around them. Stupid boys.
The day I learned how to read without my teacher and mother and guiding finger and annunciating vocal cords, I felt free. For the first time, I did not have to ask anyone to explain road signs or cinema tickets or recipes or newspaper articles or books to me—I could read every word myself. Surely, there were many words that I did not yet understand—such as ‘Wirklichkeit’ and ‘Weltschmerz’—but they were at least no miraculous mystery to me anymore. There was a predictable, formulaic science behind the intriguing black symbols on the white pages, and after much practice and repetition, I had finally grasped the way they and their clusters behaved. Now, I could read the words, and of most, I could even make sense and meaning all by myself. With my head held higher suddenly, I walked through the world with my eyes so wide open that they fell asleep teary and exhausted every night. Whenever I still had time to think in the evenings between being completely wiped out and our mother’s reading of a few chapters and the closing evening prayer, I asked myself: “How did I manage to feel fulfilled prior to learning how to read?” Truly, for a long time after that afternoon under the grand oak, I intensely sought to re-imagine what it must have felt like to not know what the alphabet sounded like and meant in its countless combinations. Not surprisingly, however, I just could not get to it, that feeling of such horrendous captivity. During first grade, I had acquired the alphabet and with that my very own sense of independence and freedom. Certainly, the thoughts of my 6 year-old self were more simplistic than I present them here today, but I do remember their depth. I felt my freedom expanding with each line that I was able to read and comprehend. The best thing about his realization was that since I could not unlearn how to read and therefore never be a prisoner of mind and heart ever again, this feeling was here to stay.