I grew up in a middle-class family in rural upstate New York. We had a mortgage and a car loan, and my brother and I wore hand-me-downs. It was a nice, ordinary American upbringing: quietly blessed, reassuringly average, except for one thing: in books, I have always been rich.
My earliest memories are of books, the crammed shelves a backdrop for birthday parties, family dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. We read every night, my brother and I perched on my dad’s lap, Goodnight Moon open before us, or Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. When we got older, my mom dug through her old boxes of books from when she was a girl, rediscovering along with us Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At summer camp, I traded books with my friends, devouring with illicit pleasure the likes of The Baby-Sitters Club series, Tiger Eyes, and Izzy, Willy-Nilly — books my small town library didn’t own. These books taught me to have crushes, do my nails, and flirt. They informed me about sex and my body, and probably empowered me to make smart choices about those things throughout my life.
From my parents’ shelves, I drew down books I probably wasn’t ready for, but no one ever told me to put a book back. From dog-eared, underlined college textbooks, I learned about extreme poverty and AIDS, the Holocaust and cancer, war and rape. I read Stephen King, which kept me up at night for years. In perusing those adult shelves, I learned an expensive lesson: nothing I read could ever be unread. Still, I wouldn’t trade those books — each one of them — for anything. To me, books were the world, transported to my teenage bedroom in my tiny upstate town.
Growing up, I never stopped to notice who was and wasn’t reading. I didn’t yet understand what books represented — privilege, education, even wealth, relatively speaking. Reading is a leisure activity, a luxury, and it demands time. I travelled abroad after graduating from college, and backpacking through Asia, I was mostly — embarrassingly, now — amused at the illiteracy I encountered. From Laos to India, I took pictures of signs spelled ridiculously wrong, and I never questioned the relative absence of bookstores, or libraries, or books in general. I worked on farms, but I never tried going into a school to see what it was like. For better or worse, I never noticed the problem enough to even…notice.
Instead, I managed to find the books I needed at hostels. Every hostel had a cycling shelf, a tiny library, Lonely Planets mixed in with trashy romances, travel novels, the rare Bill Bryson, the more common Paulo Coelho. The books were almost all in English. I did fine.
It took me until 2010 to “check my privilege,” as the kids are saying nowadays. I was in Antigua, Guatemala — a colonial, touristy city an hour southwest of Guatemala City — and I was starting to write my own book, about Latin America, traveling alone, and teaching English. Antigua, one of Guatemala’s most modern cities, had one library, and every morning I went there to work.
The library, one long room, was usually empty, except for the librarian and me. She sat behind a desk, and behind her were the shelves. If I needed a book, she had to retrieve it for me. My Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to ask for anything, anyway, so I spent my mornings seated at a perpetually empty table. No families came in, no young couples, no retired folk. No one. No one touched the books, or wandered from one subject to another, or opened books at random and then put them back. No one sniffed the pages.
I didn’t quite understand why the library was always so empty until a book fair set up shop in the plaza outside. As I browsed, I discovered that each book cost at least $15, an amount that could cover my hostel bed for a week. Books, I realized sharply, suddenly, are too expensive. They’re a luxury item, designated for the rich, for the privileged. Guiltily, I remembered the crammed shelves of my childhood. The literary world is a sealed one, and as I held the expensive books in my hands, I realized finally how hard it is to break in.
I traveled another year, and then I moved back to the States and became a teacher. I work in New Mexico at a community college, and in the time I’ve taught, I’ve learned that illiteracy is a domestic issue, too. Many, many of my students don’t read. Some legitimately don’t know how. Some have learning disabilities, reading problems, and a lot don’t have the money or insurance to get any issues checked out. New Mexico is a poor state. A lot of students speak only Spanish at home, and many, especially if they moved here within their lifetimes, didn’t learn to properly read in Spanish. Now they’re being expected to read — and write — in English. Some students just don’t have the time, and some lack the courage. Many don’t see a reason; reading, they believe, has never helped them before.
My students who read almost always do better than the ones who don’t. Of course, I teach English, so that would make sense, but I’m still amazed at how reliable the correlation is between good writing and frequent reading. I can tell which students grew up reading books — even if they don’t anymore — and I can see that they are better communicators. I took over the college’s literary magazine last year, and at our annual reception, I could count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in the audience. In a largely Hispanic town, the event was dominated by white people, because they are the ones who know about our magazine, submit to it, and read it. The problem is simultaneously no one’s fault and everyone’s.
Meanwhile, I do my best. When someone falls asleep in class, or admits to not having done the reading, or disrespects some piece of writing I fell in love with years ago, I don’t take it personally. Instead, I call on a student to read aloud. I make sure we read as a class every day. I give extra credit to students who submit to our litmag, and I spend hours contemplating writing prompts. Still, it’s hard to teach someone to love something if they don’t. I think that to want to read, you have to love books, at least a little. You have to know what reading has the capacity to do. You have to have seen for yourself where it can take you, what it can show you. So many people never have.
And it isn’t just my students. These are strange times, and today, living in a rich country doesn’t necessarily mean you read. In 2016, images speak louder than words — and usually do. Time is tight and must be budgeted carefully. Our media sources barrage us with too many words to process, and so we’ve become a society of skimmers.
Indeed, the reasons for illiteracy are more complex now than ever before, but one is that we don’t have the space for reading, or the silence that reading demands. We don’t fit it into our lesson plans, our evening routines, our Saturday mornings, because increasingly, we don’t see the point. It’s happening to me: I skim my emails along with my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the books I’ve been meaning to read languish on the table beside me, ignored. And I am the one percent, the girl who grew up rich in books, who put in her 10,000 hours of reading by the time she was 18.
Now, though, she reads much less.
Last winter, I went home for Christmas. My mom dug boxes from the closet, and my brother and I pored over the things she’d saved from our childhoods: postcards from camp, Christmas lists, sloppy paintings. At the bottom of my box was a story I wrote when I was 10 or 11, a Christmas tale about a girl who sees a beggar in the street. She gives him her shoes, or something — I can’t quite remember the plot. What I recall is being struck by the quality of the punctuation, the spelling, the formatting. I had known as a young reader what many of my students, community college students, have yet to learn: how to spell “there” and “their,” how to use a comma properly, how to capitalize the first letter of a name. It’s the fault of many things: our poor state, our bad high schools, the challenges facing our bilingual population. It’s because we don’t read with our children, though that seems the beacon of hope, the kernel of change, for I’ve always heard that literacy begins at home.
This year, my resolution is simple: to drink profusely of the written word. I will pass along good books; I will write reviews; I will read excerpts in my classes with my students. I will work to cultivate in my community a love for reading. I will check my privilege, because I have something that many do not: I have access to worlds upon worlds. I will make the time to read, for those who read grow rich.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“My students are not as puzzled by Gertrude Stein as I expect them to be. Stein writes: ‘Glazed Glitter. Nickel, what is nickel,’ and my students recognize the moment of wondering. This habit of wonder is familiar in part because we have been raised on the lists of Goodnight Moon.” On Gertrude Stein, Goodnight Moon, and the wonderment of language from Slate.
Count weather among the forces that I move through life without fully understanding. On a recent frigid Saturday, a sharp chill hunted my joints through worn thermals and cheap gloves. Forget grocery shopping, not with the stroller, not in this cold. My 16-month-old son and I retreated to the library. More than basmati rice or cauliflower, we needed open space, the familiar thick carpet where he could squat and squeal freely. We needed the warm light of enormous lampshades embossed with ants, birds, and humpback whales. We needed more books.
Maybe that should read “wanted.” My son hadn’t tired of Good Dog, Carl or My Friends. He’d started requesting Tickle, Tickle by name. His mother invoked Knuffle Bunny while he handed her laundry, and Brush Your Teeth, Please had helped me transform a grim chore into something like dessert. (Grape-flavored toothpaste deserves some credit here). For weeks, maybe months, books had reliably engaged him, exciting or calming him depending on the title, the time of day, and what could be called his nascent taste. A rotation of Goodnight, Moon, Good Night, Gorilla, and Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site guided him to sleep most nights. Our afternoons sometimes focused on books of a certain theme: bunnies, oceans, dogs, primates. Reading was becoming a force that shaped his world, but unlike a polar vortex or a hurricane, it felt like a force within parental control. Three weeks later, our borrowed books due, I am less sure. I can control the presence or absence of books. I can curate his library. I can open the book and ask him “Where is the bird?” After that, mystery follows. Once the words leave my mouth for his ears and brain, they enter a universe where nothing is fixed.
This particular trip to the library marked the end of an eventful week in his early literacy. At bedtime the previous Sunday, he had restacked his books to recover a strategically buried title, Trains Go. My son sat in his typical way, circling once and bracing with both hands before thudding down. (“I learned to sit from my friend the dog…”) He laughed, looking like a tiny John Belushi. In this moment, I saw a flash of what I’ve heard other parents call the Boy-Boy, a term I understand but dislike. He raised the book, which we had read dozens of times, above his head.
In that moment I thought about another force in the world, the force behind the very idea of a Boy-Boy: I thought about gender. My son leaned forward, arms raised and extended. A smile strained his cheeks, seven tiny teeth bared. His whole body twisted into an absurd, miniature shrine to the ultimate Boy-Boy book, which he loves with an intensity that surprises me, though I bought it for him. How little control I have over what gender information he learns! Male adults he has barely met teach him “High five!” and call him “Buddy.” His favorite YouTube videos feature John Lee Hooker wanly performing “Boom, Boom, Boom,” and Ray Charles teaching The Blues Brothers to “Shake a Tail Feather.” The two-year-old boy at the Houston Children’s Museum shows him that cars go “rrrrrr,” and by that evening, my son imitates him precisely. At a playground’s toy house, a trio of four-year-old girls cold shoulders him; at daycare, where his favorite place to play is the toy kitchen, his three tias teach him that la cocina is for boys, too. This thrills his mother and me, even if we still haven’t been able to stop calling him, affectionately, “Mister, Mister.” That night, my son held Trains Go over his head and I thought, Gender is weather: it’s a force you can’t do much to change, the changes of which are are over time unpredictable and not entirely benign.
The horizontal outline of Trains Go settled in my hands, and the contours of its worn cardboard pages dragged me out of abstraction. “Junebug, we read that already,” I said. He grunted, then opened it in his own lap. “Wooo woooo wooooooo,” he said, reading words not on that page, but the next one. I shook my head, astonished. The next storytime, he opened The House in the Night, flapping his lips and saying “bah-bah, baah-baaah,” as he must think I do. He learns, as toddlers do, through mimicry. On the shelf above Harold and the Purple Crayon and the one below What to Expect: The Second Year rests my neglected copy of Poetics, in which Aristotle says: “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation.” Reading this, after he went to bed that night, I wondered even more intensely, what does he learn about gender from me? Does he learn the next claim in Poetics, that “it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.” All feels impossible, because I know I cannot delight in the countless imitations of violence and chauvinism and privilege I witness in too many fathers and sons and brothers and husbands. So if I can’t delight, can he? Of course he can. I start to worry that I should be more vigilant in my observations. What exactly does he imitate? What does he ignore?
I am probably more typically masculine now, as a father and husband, than I have been since age seven, when I left behind construction trucks and dinosaurs for a Cabbage Patch doll in a Boston Red Sox uniform. I named the doll Ellis Burks, after the actual center fielder, and I thought I treated him with the tenderness any of the Girl-Girls in the playhouse. I referred to him formally, using only his complete name. Ellis Burks, drink your milk. Ellis Burks, go to sleep. Ellis Burks, why are you crying? Ellis Burks, let’s play catch.
Later in elementary school, after I memorized the presidents in order using flashcards my father had bought me, my cousins and I filled summers with games of “White House” on piles of seaside driftwood. “White House” cribbed its structure from your typical “House” played by aspiring princesses everywhere. I adapted it, persuading my younger siblings and cousins to assume the identities of actual figures: Aaron Burr, my shifty vice president, James Madison, my trusted secretary of state. My cousin Kate, of course, was Mrs. Jefferson. As a parent, my younger self’s lack of imagination for the female roles troubles me. Nerd that I was, fidelity to fact did not keep me from asking Kate’s older sister to play Queen Victoria (not yet crowned) or Catherine the Great (dead). No: a hole in my own concept of the world, a lack of schema for powerful women in that world, is what kept my sister from playing Sacajawea, reporting back with Lewis and Clark, her twin boy cousins. I hadn’t learned to expect to see women in the White House as anything other than first ladies, despite having read through countless books providing stories of men to populate a constructed world. I’d read these books, of course, at the place I had taken my son on that freezing Saturday — my local library.
Leaving the library, I pushed my son north on St. Nicholas Avenue. My voice described what we passed — “There’s a streetlamp, and a WALK signal. This street is 1-7-9, which is one more than 1-7-8 and one less than 1-8-0. Look there’s a yellow light, it means slow down. That car has its hazards on, those lights are for parking illegally.” My mind sorted through the way each incident in his young life left a trace of information, a tiny dot. Even in its flawed form, “White House” was only possible because I’d connected dots between texts. A few days before he read Trains Go to me, I had noticed my son apparently doing the same thing. Sorting his library before bedtime, he double-fisted Sandra Boynton books, opening The Going to Bed Book, then Opposites. Like most Boynton books, these two shared an ensemble of cartoonish animals: a moose, a hippopotamus, a rabbit, a cat. He opened both books and compared them, turning a page in one, then looking at the other, turning a page in that one, then looking at the first book. This moment returned to me on the cold walk home, and I did a quick census. Only the hippopotamus had a clearly stated gender. This is a problem, I thought.
It could only be fixed by camel.
“Fixed by Camel,” was a phrase my father, a one-time carpenter, had used after reassembling my son’s crib in our new apartment. At Christmas, to clarify, he gave my son Jacquelyn Reinach’s Sweet Pickles book Fixed by Camel, a gift as much for me — and for him — as it was for my son. With the book in my hands, I immediately remembered Clever Camel and her brick-orange, long-sleeved coverall jumpsuit. How she outsmarts Kidding Kangaroo when he strands her on a roof, traps her under a manhole cover, and defaces the park benches she paints. How she captures him in a jungle gym snare, lured by an irresistible sign reading “DANGER DO NOT RING DOORBELL UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” How she also leaves a glass of milk and two peanut butter sandwiches, which she tells him he should eat while he waits for her sidewalk to dry. I always loved that Camel — calm, solutions-oriented, quick-witted, and compassionate — was female. The writer’s choice to explicitly gender her felt radical to me, risky, rare. It added depth and surprise, two qualities Aimee Bender calls universal pleasures in a close read of her infant twins’ favorite book, Good Night, Moon.
After our trip to the library, I sat down with my son and Fixed by Camel. As with A is for Activist and A Rule is to Break: The Child’s Guide to Anarchy, as with Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth and Press Here, the first read felt more for my pleasure than for his. Clever Camel might have been a revelation for me as a child, a fixed point from which I could explore the idea — gender — that I still don’t understand. But my guidepost can’t be my son’s. He’ll find his own, in time, and I can hope that he does that because I help him ask better questions, no matter what those questions, or their answers, might be. This thought chased my disappointment with his reaction to the book. There’s nothing broken, nothing to be fixed. Aristotle didn’t have the last word on imitation; the modernists and phenomenologists saw to that. “Of course, works of art imitate the objects they represent, but their end is certainly not to represent them,” Jacques Lacan once wrote. “In offering the imitation of an object, they make something different out of that object. Thus they only pretend to imitate.” Whether or not my son’s imitations of men and what they should love are pretend, they are his attempts to be in the world and to love it. Every time he surprises me with that sort of expression, I need to be grateful beyond words. Imposing my version of gender, my preference for skepticism and nonconformity, isn’t any more appropriate or healthy than forcing him into army fatigue onesies or calling him “Daddy’s Big Guy.” Yes, I hope to expose him to stated versions of all kinds of gender, not only your Gymboree binary, not only Boynton’s sexless bestiary. Yes, I plan to fight the tendency to make the default gender male. But most of all, I think of the gift my father gave to his son when he gave Fixed by Camel to mine. The book transmitted of a spark, bequeathing to my son and I both an encounter with surprise and depth. It’s that electricity I want to conduct. My father’s easy transfer of precise kindness is something I may well spend my life learning to imitate.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Aimee Bender, Year in Reading alum and author of, most recently, The Color Master, writes for The New York Times about the structural genius of Goodnight Moon: “[The story] does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them.”
At Book Club, I’m a spy. I’m the only writer in this group of a dozen women. The others are scientists, doctors, social workers, winemakers. I’ve enjoyed the company of these smart, opinionated women immensely for nearly ten years, but I’d be lying if I said the camaraderie (and the pinot and the cheese) were the only reasons I participate. You see, my membership in the group gives me a real window into the reading habits of the very audience I’m trying to capture with my own fiction, a way to conduct a living room focus group, if you will, without anyone being the wiser. I can report that, over a decade, the tastes of the group have changed dramatically, in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for my own emerging career.
At Book Club, I’m also the secretary. One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year. Every member offers a couple suggestions — title, author, and a one paragraph description typically cut and pasted from Amazon. Before sending out the list, I read through it closely, excited about all the interesting possibilities. And yet, my mind gets stuck on particular phrases in the descriptions that I know, from years of experience, will likely push the book out of contention.
I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, most of us were just reaching our thirties. We’d yet to have children. We were career-focused, new transplants to our little town (brought here through our or our spouses’ jobs at the local college), and we were eager for friendship and mind-stimulation. We used to read at least a dozen books a year for the club. We read literary best-sellers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. We read classics, such as the collected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We read topical nonfiction, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. We had a night solely devoted to poems we loved. We read cookbooks. Once, just after Obama won his first election, we kicked off a meeting with a reading of Goodnight Bush, a parody of the classic Goodnight Moon we’d all soon enough be reading to our own children.
I vividly remember a meeting, about six years ago, when half of our small group was pregnant, myself included. We were propped uncomfortably on couches and chairs, using pillows strategically. Those who weren’t pregnant had left their infants or toddlers home with spouses. One nursed her newborn while we discussed my top pick for that year, Lorrie Moore’s bestselling story collection, Birds of America. I was the discussion leader, another relic that’s been lost.
Recommending this book was perhaps a mistake, not because I didn’t love it, but because I loved it too much, to the point of challenging anyone in the room to a knife fight lest they claim Moore was anything less than the greatest living writer. The trouble started when, one by one, members admitted they could not read the book’s show-stopper, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” a gut-wrenching story, yet full of Moore’s characteristic wit and humor, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the setting is a pediatric cancer ward.
“Does this kid die?” someone asked. A roomful of frightened eyes asked me the same question. My arms were crossed over my expanding belly. I knew that Moore’s story, though billed as fiction, was largely autobiographical. I knew, from some interview or another, that Moore’s son was alive and well. I urged people to go back to the story, said they’d be glad they did, but I’m not sure that anyone did so.
A similar thing happened when we picked Emma Donaghue’s Room. Thankfully, during the meeting to pick that year’s books, someone was there who had already read Room and could assure everyone that the boy and his mother do escape from their captor and survive. Without that member’s impassioned plea, it would not have been chosen, despite its stellar reviews. I worry about what our picks say about us, myself included. Although I might read more widely due to my profession as a writer, I, too, have found myself on many nights, once the children are finally asleep, the dishes washed, reaching for a decorating magazine by the side of my bed rather than the stack of National Book Award nominees. As I’m currently battling insomnia, my doctor warned me against reading anything too “heavy” right before sleep. And so, the books must wait until I have a swath of time during the day when I can absorb myself in something more challenging. But with two young children, that just isn’t going to happen.
Is that a lame excuse? Have I, and our other club members, become lazy? Complacent? Has motherhood made us incapable of putting literary tragedy in its proper perspective? Or are we just…tired? Are we victims of the mentality that says we must do it all or die trying? (Books on this topic will almost always get the nod.) Is it so wrong to simply want to zone out with a magazine, or a Will Ferrell movie, instead of the latest Oscar nominee for Best Picture?
This year, we will pick only five books. It was a decision made last year when the club was on life support. Attendance had dwindled to nothing, and something had to be done. We threw all the former rules aside. Can’t make most of the meetings? That’s okay! Come whenever! Come to the meeting, even if you haven’t read the book! Bring a friend, who also hasn’t read the book! We now have two purely social meetings each year, one a potluck that includes our families. The other five meetings feature discussion of a brief magazine article of interest to the group, usually something from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which can be read over lunch the day of the meeting.
Though membership has changed, the Book Club has been with me since I started writing my debut novel five years ago. I’m finally done and showing it to agents, but will I show it to club members? I’m not so sure I can just yet. I worry about their reaction. Though there is humor and lightheartedness scattered throughout, my book is about serious themes, a controversial mix of religion and politics and science, all the things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. If I anonymously offered a description of it in the list of recommendations, would it get chosen? I’m afraid I know the answer to that question, and it makes my eye start to twitch.
In any case, we’ve gravitated from novels to mostly non-fiction, titles that impact our lives directly, such as books examining child-rearing, work/life balance, or books that show us the science of our decision making. If they’re going to take the time to read them, members want books they can use. I read the list of recommendations again before sending it to the group. “Hilarious,” (check) “Unputdownable,” (this is a word now? check) “Eye-opening” (could go either way). I look over the books I’d personally like to read, even when they inevitably don’t get chosen. These are books that might make me sad, but that I think ultimately will give me an understanding of what it means to be human. These books will be my non-required reading, should I be ambitious enough at the end of a long day to put down the decorating magazines.
And so the voting begins. I feel bad for the excellent authors who won’t make our list. Laugh, I want to tell them, and the Book Club laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.
Image: Sean M. Freese/Flickr
Lately, I have been very jealous of my husband. He is writing a book about reading children’s literature as an adult, and so, more often than not, I’ll find him splayed out on the couch, one cat on his chest, another on his knees, his feet hanging over the edge (he is 6’3”) reading Good Night Moon or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Who wouldn’t envy a guy who spends his off hours like that? A few weeks ago, I came home late one night from teaching — it was rainy and cold, and when I saw my husband, warm and dry and happily curled up on the couch reading, I was so covetous I snatched the book away. It was once one of my favorites.
Do you remember how it was when you were a kid, when you read a book, and the story opened up above you like a big umbrella and you could sit in its shade for hours, your dreams entangling in its unfolding narrative? That’s how I felt reading my purloined copy of Ramona The Pest by Beverly Cleary. In kindergarten, at last, Ramona, like all good heroines “was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.” She was a girl “who when she made ‘a great big noisy fuss’ usually got her way.” Suffice it to say that Ramona makes many a great big noisy fusses in these pages, chasing boys, getting stuck in the mud, going in and out of the good graces of her beloved teacher, Miss Binney. She even suffers a full-fledged existential crisis on Halloween when: “She felt lost inside her costume. She wondered if her mother would know which witch was which…What if her mother forgot her? What if everyone in the whole world forgot her?” What was so satisfying about reading this perfectly rendered sequence was how completely heard it made me feel when I read it first as a little girl, and how doubly understood I felt reading it recently, remembering that luscious sense of camaraderie and collaboration with a little minx of a character. I now fully fathom why Ramona needed to put a sign on over her costume so the world would know who she was. Where she got it wrong was in ever thinking that she herself was forgettable.
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