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?
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
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.
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:
Dinner 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.
While 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.
When 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]