Childhood reading in retrospect: Conversations with UC Berkeley professors

Sunny Sichi/Staff

M
y favorite childhood book and my earliest memory are one and the same: I was maybe 4 years old, sitting on a box in my garage and poring over a copy of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” for the umpteenth time. My attention was especially fixed on one of the characters called a Yink, who drinks pink ink — and that’s all I can remember. It’s a cloudy, vague memory, but it’s there, and only upon recent reflection did I realize its significance. It’s a concrete memory of where my journey with reading began — and I haven’t really stopped reading since. Coincidentally, reading and writing are what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to, and I know for a fact that I owe much of my passion for words to my obsession with reading as a kid.

In my own reflection of my favorite childhood books and the effect they had on me, I became curious to know if others had experienced this phenomenon — if their careers and interests could similarly be traced to their favorite childhood book. More specifically, I wanted to know if this was the case for professors here at UC Berkeley. So, I asked three professors from three different departments to reflect on their favorite childhood books, and I later sat down with them to discuss this very topic.

Professor Alex Filippenko — Astronomy

The Daily Californian: What was your favorite book or series as a child and why?

Alex Filippenko: I don’t remember the exact title or author of the book, but there was a very influential book — I’ll tell the story. In the first grade or so, and the beginning of the second grade, I was fascinated with magnetism, and I played with magnets in the sandbox. You could feel the force, but you couldn’t see it or anything like that. The teachers at that particular school thought I was a little bit weird for doing this, so my parents took me out of that school and put me into a different school — a public school, in the second grade — where a teacher said, “Oh, wow, you’re interested in magnetism? Well, if you go to the library, you’ll find a book that will tell you how to produce this effect… at will!” So I went into … the school library, and I found the book, and it taught me … that when you wind a wire around a nail or a screw, or something like that, and then hook it up to a battery and send a current through it, lo and behold, it will pick up paperclips! So I could become master of this effect — magnetism — and I resolved at that point to someday understand it. But that book in the second grade, showing me how to — in a sense — how to control magnetism helped set me onto this path of science that I followed all my life.

DC: That’s actually one of my other questions — did the book have any impact on what you chose to study and practice in your career?

AF: Yeah, it sure did. I became interested in many different sciences in my youth — bugs, electronic circuits, chemistry — in fact, chemistry was sort of my life from age 10 through 17. But I eventually switched to physics, and in particular astrophysics, and I think part of the reason I switched to physics was this fascination with electricity and magnetism. … And so my overall interest in, not just physics, but the natural world around me in general was certainly inspired and cultivated by that book. And though I may well have become a scientist anyway, certainly that book was an influential book that helped cement the case.

DC: It’s a good thing your parents chose to switch you into a different school!

AF: Well, that’s right, because this first school was more into sort of rote memorization, and they thought it was a bit weird for this first-grade or second-grade kid to be playing with these magnets. What I was showing was a natural curiosity for the world — which should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Professor William White — Anthropology

DC: What was your favorite book or series as a child and why?

William White: So that was hard for me to remember — I couldn’t remember all the books I had read, but I texted my mom yesterday … and she reminded me that when I was young — like in second and third grade — I loved these books called “Encyclopedia Brown.” And I haven’t seen those around — they don’t have the same books anymore, but I remember reading almost every single one of them and diligently trying to figure out how he solved it — rather than just going straight to the back and figuring it out. And then that also reminded me that after reading those “Encyclopedia Brown” books, I moved onto “Sherlock Holmes” and have been a “Sherlock Holmes” fan since I was in high school.

DC: So you were really into mysteries?

WW: Well, no, not mysteries. It was just … problem-solving, now that I think about it, because I always liked experiments and research and stuff like that even as a young child. So it was interesting to remember that book — it’s crazy that I’d end up doing the same thing years later.

DC: Yeah, that was actually one of my other questions — if the book had any impact on what you chose to study or practice in your career?

WW: I didn’t … really initially think about it, but that whole thing of problem-solving and doing experiments … and research, I always loved it. When I was younger, we didn’t have a lot of money, so going to the library was like a weekly entertainment thing, and during the summer we’d go two or three times a week. And I remember even as a young child I never wanted to read … fiction; I read only nonfiction, so I read a lot of science books and history books and all kinds of stuff about the world. And so … I didn’t really make the connection … that I would still keep doing research and, you know, I’m an archaeology professor, right? So I’m still doing the same thing.

Professor Emily Zazulia — Music

DC: What was your favorite book or series as a child and why?

Emily Zazulia: I think my favorite children’s book when I was small, small was “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.” You know, I have a 2-year-old now, so I find myself revisiting some of these early, early books and I think that was one of my favorites because of how it sounds. I’ve heard my husband or my friends reading this book, and if they don’t pay attention to the rhythm of the language, I get a little annoyed. Because it’s so present and (musical). So I think that’s one that stuck, even though there’s no story — it’s the sound of things.

And then, I was thinking, we go through all these stages of engagement with books when you’re little, right? I remember the most formative young adult book being “A Wrinkle in Time” — probably my favorite book throughout elementary and middle school. And it was only when you sent the prompt that it got me thinking about why — (it was) probably (my) first time seeing a main character that was sort of recognizable. You know, female, and sort of a misfit and good at math — which was something I identified with at the time — and had crazy hair. Also being a sci-fi approach that wasn’t so male-dominated… I couldn’t have articulated any of that at the time but, I think in retrospect, that was part of what was going on.

DC: Which kind of leads into one of my other questions, which was if the book, any of the books, had any impact on what you chose to study or what you chose to practice in your career.

EZ: It’s funny the way you ask that. The two things I toggled between — when I was at your stage, actually — was music, which is obviously where I ended up, and math. I thought I’d be a double major in college, (but) it wasn’t an option where I was in school, and so I ended up with music. And maybe it’s more obvious in “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” because it is all about the sound of things — I don’t know if it pushed me in that direction, but I think it’s part of the reason I liked the book at the time, and probably why I still enjoy reading that one. I have this kid, who, you know, 2-year-olds get obsessed with things, and they want to read the same book over and over. Some of the books that we have, I don’t want to read over and over — but this is one that I’m always happy to recite or read.  

So, after sitting down with these three professors, all of whom had favorite childhood books that had some bearing on their fields of expertise, it became clear that what we read as a child does in fact seem to have an impact on our future passions. But beyond just how absolutely fascinating this is, these correlations also highlight something even more significant: the true power that children’s literature holds. The worlds we are exposed to through books during those formative years in our lives shape us in ways that really only become clear in retrospect.

I’m not trying to claim that “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” is the whole reason I’m studying English — that would be hilarious but also untruthful. I do, however, think it planted a seed in my little 4-year-old brain that I’ve been sowing ever since. Because of this, I’m grateful for that book, and all the others I’ve read, for shaping me in ways I realize, but especially in ways I will never know.

Contact Madelyn Peterson at [email protected]