The Way We Used to Walk the Dog

August 10, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 16 8 min read

As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.

“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.

“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.

“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”

I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.

Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.

“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”

I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.

“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”

“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.

Anshu was on a roll: “James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits. Do you remember The Twits?”

I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.

From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.

I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.

If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:

coverDinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.

At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”

And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.

If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.

Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”

The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.

As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.

The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.

covercovercoverWhile the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome

Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.

My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.

coverWhen I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.

I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.

When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.

But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.

I will put my arm around her and start like this:

CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…

Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.

[Image credit: Frank]

essays have appeared on The Rumpus and The Morning News and in the essay collection The Rumpus Women, Vol. 1. She lives in Brooklyn and has a website:


  1. Is it too much to hope that’s you in the picture, Nell?

    Anyway, a nice piece, if a little twee.

    The reality of reading to young kids (my eldest is three) is constant repetition of the current favourite book / story night after night until you’re on the verge of insanity. But I do it because deep down I harbour the same romantic notion about moulding a little reader that you do. And this is just the first phase, where support, encouragement and indulgence are the keys.

  2. This was a good morning read. I remember my first book well, or at least, my first ‘big kid’ book, i.e. at a level somewhere above Roald Dahl but below Robert Cormier…

    it was The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I read it on a fam vacation to Mexico when I was like 9. couldnt put it down.

    And Ian is right, that photo is tres cute

  3. I think we had the same childhood (right down to mothers from Maine). I think you got a little nostalgia in my eyes…

  4. Maybe it’s different for guys, but I don’t feel the same about the first book I read time after time as a kid, Bullfinch’s Mythology. These days my favorite books are Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Robin Buss’ translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

  5. Ah yes, I remember well the first novel I ever tackled. I was eight years old and one day in the family library my grandfather’s copy of Tristram Shandy fell onto my head from a shelf on high. Do you know I sat there that whole day and finished the thing before dinner, a wondrous if mysterious concoction of mutton and apples and other things which remain unidentifiable to my memory and taste buds. From there it was At Swim-Two-Birds, and then Ulysses followed by Finnegans Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow at the same time — underwater. O! those were truly the days, weren’t they?

  6. I was reading this article at work today (I took a break from my pressing duties to check some news feeds) and your memories made me laugh one of those sweet, bittersweet laughs while I mourned the loss of such clandestine, intense reading moments.

    And while I was reminiscing about stealing my older brother’s GameBoy light to read The Phantom Toolbooth in bed and smuggling a copy of The Westing Game into his band recital, my boss walked by and I was forced to quickly close my browser window and pull up a spreadsheet. You know, so it looked like I was working.

    Ha, and I realized that maybe those secret, intense moments of reading aren’t really as lost as I thought. Maybe they’ve just changed a bit. I may not have a copy of Matilda hidden in my desk but I do have a word, poem, and book review delivered to my inbox every day. I’ve had to stop what I was doing to read and think about T.S. Eliot’s La Figilia Che Piange before. I’ve been taken captive by a selection from Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And though my examples are personal and specific, I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

    Also, do you think the shrunken or hidden computer window is today’s equivalent of hiding your comics inside the cover of your math book?

    I’m going to say yes. But only because I am not giving up on feeling young and free. And also having literary secrets.

  7. I am not sure there is a connection between the intense love of reading – the ability to lose yourself in the inner thoughts of another – and being single . . . You know too well what it is to be true to yourself? so you won’t settle for less than – a relationship that allows you to be true to yourself? because reading is such a private path to self-discovery and honest reflection of self-truth.

    As a mother of 2 girls, 10 & 14 now, I have found motherhood to be a delicious way to revisit the beloved books of childhood. I love when I see my girls lost in books, too (although these days I more often see my 14 year old lost in Facebook (too much?))

    And my memory of the earliest days of reading to them – the books I read over and over – I have found, to my surprise, that they no longer remember those early books – books that I can recite by heart because I read them so many times to my 1,2,3,4 year old. But somehow – those books laid the groundwork for the readers I have in my home today.

  8. I love this essay. I went to Norway with my mom when I was eleven. One afternoon we drove through woods and mountains and the views were stunning. Or so my mom kept telling me. My nose was in a book, and it was going to take more than a scenic view to get me out it.

  9. Nell! Fantastic! (brought tears at the end) what a perfect ending (‘denouement’?) It was startling not only because of its perfect closing of scene and that magic and mysterious angle through the window (you’re up to your writerly tricks using the reader’s imagination), but because it hits us where we live; no parent or mentor who is involved that way can fail to believe at times that this is the hinge of the world, so meaningful is it, and so fraught with importance. –As for the later decades, War and Peace should never have ended for me at 26- as I came toward ‘the end’ I yearned for a sequel; and I have read Darkness at Noon in each of 3 decades after that, with no less appreciation for its brilliance, each time. Read on ! Write on !!!

  10. Like many readers-for-life, I learned to read before school, in my case by reading signs and billboards. It isn’t one book or one series that thrills my memory–it was the fact that at age 7 my father allowed me to walk all by myself the 10 or 12 blocks to the library every Saturday morning, and the librarians who allowed me to lie on the floor on my back in the children’s section with a stack of books to sample before I chose 5 or 6 to bring home. And a father who was so thrilled to have a reading child–even tho he had little time for his own pleasure reading or reading of any kind really, he knew that this was then, and would be always, central to my life. Tell me that’s not love.

  11. Addendum: the ‘voice’ in the ending was so artful that I unconsciously internalized it and said the same thing about ‘the world’ in my comments–unintentionally plagiarized–carried away by enthusism–sorry!

  12. One more and then I’ll shut up–so we lucky readers-aloud get to play the author as well as act it out–what could be more fun? Books as entertaining for the adults as for the child because of their sly humor: The Hat by Tomi Ungerer ( great satirical illustrations), Space Case by ? (very cool, any little kid will tell you). Ungerer is collected by certain fanatics.— I know there are dozens more good titles stashed on the back porch. Saving them for the grandchildren, lucky things, when they finally get here!

  13. Nell, once again you have written a wonderful essay, perfect for summer when one wants to abandon oneself to a good book at the beach or in a hammock…………….Va. D.

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