Sharing a Heritage of Reading
'DAVID, shall we read the next chapter of 'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? I asked, one evening. His answer was apologetic: "I know you enjoy reading to me, but I'd rather play a bit tonight instead." My own disappointment took me by surprise. It's a rich moment when your son or daughter becomes old enough for the books you loved as a child. Eight-year-old David and I were immersed in the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. Each paperback volume bore my name on the flyleaf in the strange spiky writing I had at age 9 or 10. I can remember inscribing it there, setting my seal on the book and all it meant to me. These stories touched me deeper than brain or imagination.
Reading to my son is like taking him to see somewhere I used to live; books are as much a part of who I am as are the houses I lived in, the gardens where I played. Since I grew up in England, I cannot easily show my children those places, so far from here. Through the books of my childhood I share my heritage.
Ever since I was very small and my mother read to me each evening, I've been a book addict. When I was old enough, I'd check out my quota of three volumes from the library and devour them in a day. But the Narnia books and some others - Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" - have stayed with me all my life, formative not only in themselves but also in the other books they led me to.
When I realized my son was at an age I remember being, old enough for books I remember reading for the first time, I was amazed. It was like that moment on the verge of womanhood when I suddenly grasped that the phrase "mother and child" encompassed not only me as child to my mother but me as the mother to a child some day; the whole world swung around and I took a different place in it. Now, here I am with three children and my oldest son is on the threshold of the magic lands. Will they be as wonderfu l
for him? Can the child he is meet the child I used to be?
David, a true product of the video age, turns for entertainment to the TV (which I grew up without) rather than to the pages of a book. Books are tools to him, for use when curiosity or a school project prompts him to find out more about planets, dinosaurs, or spiders; and although he reads well, he thinks of it as work. Listening to someone else read, on the other hand, is fun.
Rediscovering books with him makes me think about why stories are important. Are children who watch too much TV, and never read or hear stories, missing out on something significant? Madeleine L'Engle has written that in her war-haunted childhood, stories gave her courage. "Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully," she says in "Walking on Water."
My own favorite stories were those where magic bursts in upon everyday life, as it does in E. Nesbit's books and the Narnia books themselves. And now, writing this, I dimly recall that expectation of magic: the feeling, on waking up in the morning, that something extraordinary might happen. Something wonderful shimmered just behind the long grass in the garden, just beyond the unattainable hills. And in those days the wonderful sometimes did come, falling around me as apple blossom petals in spring bapt i
ze the soft grass under the tree.
Reading to my son, I do not relive my own childhood. One never can. But I love to see his excitement over a story. "Just a bit more," he'll beg, even when it's long past his bedtime. I often comply because I'm caught up in the story myself, all over again. While he relishes the adventure, I'm granted a gift: The stories of my childhood remind my adult self that to keep on believing in worlds we cannot see requires not foolishness but courage.
David is 10 now. Since we read the Narnia books we've gone through several phases. There was "The Hobbit," which he loved, followed by a bookless gap, his choice. Then a wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Howell, got him excited about reading. The class read "A Wrinkle in Time" and "Island of the Blue Dolphins."
Now he's in fifth grade, and sometimes I read to him, sometimes he reads to himself, and sometimes he doesn't open a book for days.
Once, in his eagerness to pore over the pictures, David grabbed the book too hard, and the binding, frail with frequent usage at my hands years ago, gave way. Pages spilled all over the floor, and seeing them scattered there I feared that books may soon be outmoded by video technology. I feared that reading will acquire the mustiness of a quaint old custom.
We've just read some Mowgli stories, and he's enjoying Lloyd Alexander at the moment. When he grows up - I need to believe this - surely he'll share the pleasures of holding, opening, and reading a good book with children of his own.