The Last Word: Even great writers don't get much respect

Gertrude Stein, the expatriate American writer and critic who ran the Paris “salon” frequented by such figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Pablo Picasso, famously referred to herself as a mere “newspaper mechanic” when one of her early articles was published in the “Le Figaro” newspaper.

Such a “declasse” statement seems odd coming from someone who coined such phrases as “the lost generation” and “there’s no ‘there’ there.”

I really don’t think Stein meant to marginalize the importance of newspapers, especially in the early 20th century. I know that they certainly had a great impact on my life in the 1940s.  You see, newspapers taught me how to read.  

I knew how to read when I started first grade. While the rest of the class was dutifully repeating the teacher’s incantations of “See Spot Run,” and pondering over the adventures of Dick and Jane, I was sitting on the back row, looking out the window, thinking to myself: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I’m not particularly smart: I learned to read by looking at the “funny papers” in The Times Picayune.

Every Sunday, I would be at the station and meet the bus from New Orleans that brought several bundles of newspapers, buy mine, and hurry home to catch up on the exploits of Prince Valiant, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Little Orphan Annie.

I can’t tell you when or how I learned to read, but before I was six the captions just made sense.

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