When I adopted my son three years ago, I went on a binge of book-buying, which necessitated more shelves - in the living room, his bedroom, the library - every nook that begged a pine plank to harbor yet another set of volumes. I wanted Alyosha not only to be surrounded by good reading, but to see books as landscape, as something that improves the appearance of one's environment as well as the tenor of one's mind. I wanted our house to smell of books, the way the forest smells of damp earth after a summer rain.
My task was not an easy one. My son had come from Russia at the age of 7, and his needs there had been more basic, immediate, and ongoing: food, clothing, and shelter. Books hadn't figured into his daily life.
But here in the States, they seemed an excellent way to familiarize him with the rhythms of English. I read to him every day, and although he didn't understand a word at first, he reclined in my lap and studied the pictures with intense interest.
Within the first year, Alyosha's English had arrived. Ironically, though, his interest in books seemed to decline with his waxing proficiency in his new language. My son turned out to be athletically gifted, and his passion for soccer excluded almost all other involvements. Children's books continued to pour into our home, but more and more they went unread.
As someone who reads every book that crosses my path, I felt a little despondent about my son's equivocal attitude toward reading. My disappointment was tempered by Alyosha's healthy adjustment to life in America, but I still harbored a feeling that in books I had something to share and had only to find a way to do so.
One day while Alyosha was in school, I came across an old copy of National Geographic. In it was a story about the last Jews of Poland. One of the most moving photographs was of an all-but-destitute one-legged man reclining in bed, playing chess against himself. His room was impossibly cluttered with books - mountains of them everywhere. The photo caption stated that the man sold books on the street, but because he loved them so much, he bought them back an hour later.
I was deeply moved by this. With great impatience I waited out the day until Alyosha returned home from school. No sooner had he greeted me than I thrust the National Geographic in front of him and explained the photograph of the man who loved books. I hovered over him, quivering with anticipation, as if I could somehow help him to connect with the man's passion. After some moments of passing interest, Alyosha said, "Cool," then asked for something to eat.
But a seed had been planted. The very next day I told him I was going to a favorite used bookstore in Bangor. Bracing for a sigh of disinterest, I was surprised when Alyosha asked if he could come along. "Of course," I said, "and you can buy whatever you want."
The bookstore is a small one, occupying an old storefront in one of Bangor's poorest neighborhoods. It has a loyal clientele, so there's a lot of turnover, and I never know what treasure I'll stumble upon from week to week. When we arrived, I led Alyosha to the children's books and turned him loose.
"Which ones should I buy?" he asked as he eyed the hundreds of selections.
"Look at the ones with the nicest covers," I suggested. "Maybe they'll have nice stories inside."
This idea seemed to appeal to my son, so he fell to his haunches and began to mine the shelves. Five minutes later he rushed up to me with a book in his hands. "Dad!" he exclaimed, shoving the book at me. "Look!"
Alyosha pulled the book open, and I was struck by the sight of a crisp $5 bill wedged between two of the pages.
Alyosha's eyes were aglow. I firmed up my lip and nodded. "Well," I said, "now you have to do the right thing."
I watched as Alyosha dutifully went up to Eric, the proprietor, and showed him his find. Eric brooded and rubbed his beard. Then he smiled. "We have a rule here," he said. "If you buy a book you get to keep everything you find in it."
Alyosha turned and looked to me for approval. I nodded, and he thanked Eric. On the way home, stroking the covers of his books, he remarked, "I've decided that I'm going to love reading." Then he carefully opened one of the volumes to check on the welfare of his $5 bill.
Whatever it takes.