Monday, September 12, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: Origins

As a self-described nerd, it's sometimes necessary to point out that I am also a geek, a wonk, and -- on occasion-- a squint. Yes, I'm a word-nerd. A definer, a refiner, a picker of nits. It should come as no surprise that I write both poetry and prose, that I taught English grammar and composition (and enjoyed it), that I delight in a well-tempered sentence and thrill at an apt metaphor.

I started out on this path to nerdliness innocently enough as a child, learning to read long before I went to school, simply by hanging out with adults and paying scrupulous attention while they read to me. Once I'd mastered the art of adding letters up into words and words into sentences, I developed an insatiable appetite for the printed word.

Stories, poems, comic books, magazines, cereal boxes, you name it, I was reading it.

Somewhere along the line (before I got my first pair of glasses in third grade) I picked up on the fact that these cool sets of books in my grandparents' den contained a little bit of information on just about every topic in the known universe, arranged alphabetically by topic to ensure a thorough and well-organized coverage of all that knowledge. I was all over it. Funk and Wagnall became my new best friends.

Fortunately for me, my grandparents lived next door, so my mother took little notice of my frequent disappearances when I started sneaking off to read my way through the collected knowledge of human experience. On Saturday afternoons and weeknight evenings after dinner, I'd grab my tablet and pencil, mumble something about homework (both my grandparents were teachers, and could always be counted on for first rate homework supervision and advice), and head off to climb the dark staircase that ascended into the realm of the formal living room, fancy dining room and den that comprised the upper floor of my grandparents' home.

Once there, I would pull my current volume from the shelf, locate my carefully placed bookmark, and continue my orderly quest for enlightenment, sitting or (more often) lying on the not-entirely comfortable hide-a-bed sofa that ran the length of one wall in the den. On days or evenings when the complexity of the subject matter commanded greater attention, I would slink off to recline in my very first carel, the softly blanketed bottom of the guest-room closet. It was there --half-way through Volume 4, Berli to Bugle-- that my grandfather discovered me one Saturday, concluding with laughter a frantic search for me throughout the neighborhood after I'd failed to respond to my mother's summons home to dinner.

Almost as soon as my practice of reading through the encyclopedia became common knowledge in the family, it also became something of a joke. When friends or strangers remarked on my extensive vocabulary or unusually detailed knowledge of "earwigs," say, or "maple trees," my sister and brother would nod and explain, "Oh, she's just been reading the encyclopedia."

Years later, my mother told me that she was amused by the alphabetic progression of my topics of conversation. She confessed as well a sense of relief when I started talking about wombats; she expected I'd soon finish the set and move on to some other strange way to pass my time. 

And I did soon after finish the last volume of the Funk & Wagnall's set. 

Then I dived right in to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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