There was a time, early on, when my son Alyosha "caught fire" with books. I can even quote him, at the age of 8, declaring, "I love books!" as he hugged a stack of newly acquired tomes to his chest. But as some sage once said, "How things change!"
By the time Alyosha had entered middle school, he maintained barely a pilot light of interest in the written word. He wouldn't read anything not required by a teacher, and even then he sought the path of least resistance, often asking me - the evening before a book was to be discussed in class - to summarize the story for him.
"How far did you get in your reading?" I'd ask, only to find that he had not gotten beyond the cover. However, to his credit, he did have a ready command of title and author.
All through high school I looked on with a heavy heart as assigned books accumulated on the desk in his room, as untouched as fields of spring grass. But what could one do? I realized I couldn't command him to read, which would only make matters worse.
The best strategy seemed to be an aggressively passive one: I picked up the pace of my own reading, and I left my books all over the house, their bookmarks flagging my progress. Perhaps my example would inspire Alyosha, although I held out scant hope of even this (he was, after all, a teenager). And so I quietly brooded, hoping, at the very least, that I might earn a verse in the Book of Lamentations.
And then, a couple of months ago, in the middle of my son's 18th year, something happened. There was no starburst, no clap of thunder, no errant swirl of wind. What happened came on as unexpectedly and surreptitiously as a flower bud appearing on a shrub long given up for barren. To make a long story short, as winter turned to spring in this very year, Alyosha, in an offhand manner, asked me, "Dad, do you have a book for me to read?"
Peal of bells! Chorus of angels! Where was Handel when I needed him? In a word, I was dumbstruck. Not knowing what to say, I scrambled to my stacks and began pulling volumes from the shelves, blathering, "Poe! No, the language is too obtuse. Steinbeck! Ach, but all I have is 'The Grapes of Wrath.' It's a long one, but - I know, Mark Twain! Oh, but you must have already - Anne Tyler! She's modern but as a prose stylist there's none better - No, wait! Wait!"
Alyosha put his hand on my shoulder. "Dad," he said. "Calm down."
For a moment I thought he was going to tell me that it was all a joke. I pictured him strutting away, laughing, waving me off, singing, "How gullible!" Instead, he reached beyond me and pulled Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" from the shelf. I watched as he quietly walked off, riffling the pages as he went. Then he kicked off his shoes, reclined on the sofa, and began to read.
After an hour Alyosha was still there, deep into Hemingway. My first impulse was to ask him what he thought of the story thus far. But the better angels of my nature counseled caution. Observing my son read was like watching a high-wire act, or a man hanging from a rope by his teeth: the best policy was to hold one's breath and hope that everything went well. And so I went about my business, wondering if I was witnessing a mere flirtation or true love.
Two hours later Alyosha was still at it. By the end of the next day I happened to be present as he turned the last page. I hovered on the threshold, looking on as I absently dried a dish. As he finished Hemingway's concluding sentence ("I turned off the light and walked back to the hotel in the rain"), Alyosha quietly, almost reverently, closed the book. He laid it upon his chest and reflected for a moment. Then he stared into the distance and murmured, "How sad."
No two more beautiful words had ever been spoken. "How sad!" My son had not only become a reader, but a critic! A two-for-one deal.
In the intervening weeks, Alyosha has continued devouring books. From Hemingway he moved on to Twain and Steinbeck. Then he read a history, a modern novel, and now the current bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown. As soon he as expresses a book wish, I fulfill it, genie-like. It is a labor of love I have long wanted to perform.
Some years ago, Alyosha, in a fit of teenage pique, had told me, "Dad, we have nothing in common." And now, suddenly, we share an entire world.
How things change!