From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!
My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.
As a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.
When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.
Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.
Where to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.
The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.
The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”
I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:
“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”
Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”
This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?
The novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.
As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.
Normally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”
With our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.
Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.
By now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting. When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.
Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?
I remember the moment, the slow walk across the second grade classroom, to one of those bookshelves that could be pushed around on wheels. This one was parked, though, and I was heading for it.
What was I thinking at the time? That, I can’t remember now, I can only recall the purposeful walk, as if something about that bookshelf called to me. And when I got there, I found a book that would change my life. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.
I don’t know why I picked it. I shouldn’t have. I was one of the worst readers in the class, and I can remember tearful sessions with my parents at home as I tried to make my way through the simplest of texts. This book was far more difficult than anything I’d ever attempted to read before.
Perhaps it was the story, of Henry Huggins determined to take a stray dog home, the uncooperative bus driver indifferent to the delivery of Henry’s heart’s desire. At the time I had no dog myself. Did I want a dog, was that it? I can’t remember. Perhaps it was Henry’s quiet insistence in keeping this companion, his inventive persistence at achieving his goal. Maybe Henry’s example inspired me, helped me to teach myself how to use the dictionary so I could to make my way through this book filled with difficult words.
Because I needed a companion too. Outside the closed door of my room, my parents’ inexhaustible battles played themselves out, arguments I could further muffle by entering the world of a book, though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I’m sure. But I must have understood that I needed to learn how to read, in order to open the invisible door I sensed was there. Once I’d navigated Henry Huggins, other books easily followed, other companions: Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and then, as I grew older, a succession of adventure books set on fantastic worlds, packed with swords and gunplay. I wonder now, as I write this, was all that drama a way of domesticating the domestic warfare still waged by my mother and father, a way to ease the sting of conflict?
Or was some form of escape the secret desire, the traveling to the distant worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, following John Carter to Mars, Carson Napier to Venus and David Innes to the center of the earth. Even now, I can’t believe that I can remember their names, or that Mars was called Barsoom.
Whatever the desire, I read so much that eventually my parents forced me to go outside and play, and they talked to each other—and I overheard—of taking me to a child specialist to see if there was anything wrong with me. And still I devoured books, increasing the real estate inside me where I could find a place of my own, where my heroes always managed to slip away from disaster.
But no book could prevent the disaster that occurred when I was eleven, when arguments seemed to serve no further purpose, when my mother tried to stab my father with a knife, when on another occasion she strangled him with a towel around his neck, his head stuck between two rungs of a banister. In both cases I worked my way between my struggling parents, and at this moment as I write I’m struck by a new thought, that perhaps all those years of reading adventure stories had given me a vocabulary of action, a means to save my father’s life, as if I’d been preparing, through books, for those charged moments without knowing it.
Some poison had been leached by that violence, and in the months and years that followed my parents reverted back to the rituals of verbal sparring. What had set all this in motion, the steps to that terrible brink, and then the retreat? I couldn’t know.
A change had occurred in me, too. My beloved adventure books had somehow lost their adventure. I would still read obsessively, but now dutifully, because the literary rituals of crisis and escape felt somehow empty—what I read no longer gave me what I wanted, though I didn’t yet know what I wanted.
One day in seventh grade I ordered my usual stack of books from the Scholastic Books Service; one of them was an abridged version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A little skeptical, I figured I could skip past the peace parts if they proved too boring. When the nine or so books I’d ordered finally arrived I saved Tolstoy’s novel for last—even abridged, the book was 500 pages long, longer than any book I’d ever read before. But its length was not the challenge, not in the way the vocabulary of Henry Huggins had been for me years ago. The challenge was of an entirely different order.
I can remember the moment I realized I’d stumbled into new territory. I was sitting on a lawn chair in the backyard, beneath the clothesline, in the shadow of a tree. I set Tolstoy’s novel on my lap, then picked it up and checked the page number. Page 73. I can actually remember the page number. And what most struck me was that, after reading 73 pages, of a novel titled War and Peace, nobody had died yet, there was none of the action that I’d come to expect from all my previous reading. And most surprising, I didn’t care. Because I knew that this was already the best book I’d ever read. And nobody had died yet. Now how could that be?
Here was action of a different sort: the action of the heart, the revelation of interior lives, the drama of inner conflict, all of which gave voice to my growing awareness of my own secret self. Here was a vast world that wasn’t Mars, or Venus, or the center of the earth. What had once been the pleasure of escape was now a pleasure of a different sort—that of a journey, a way to map inner landscapes. And a way, perhaps, to make sense of the tangled knots of my family, what we’d tied ourselves into.
But never quite to make sense, never to completely unravel, because the books I read now offered no easy solutions, and that was the confounding joy of them, the messy truth no matter how elegant the prose or canny the structure.
Such books gave me my future, not so much my future as a writer, though of course there is that, but my future as a human, a fallible human engaged in the futile attempt to know oneself and others. Each new book, like Zeno’s arrow, gets closer to but never hits the target. There is no easy or final understanding, but without the attempt, who can bear to live the isolation that is the alternative? And the more I read, the more I think that all readers have secret histories connected to the books they love, the books that have served for them as havens, or interventions.
So every day, I open a book. Its words were once the thoughts of another human being, thoughts that could have remained private but are instead lined up in row after row on each page. An invitation to begin, to take the first steps into another mind, to step and step until there are no steps but instead the blessed drama of art’s illusion delivering the pith of human contradiction, the greatest gift of one mind offering itself to another, the foreign air we best breathe.