Friday, May 2, 2008
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reading: What we read, why we read it. Reading is something I’ve been doing for more than 35 years, so it might seem arbitrary that I’m giving it so much thought at this particular time. But questions about literary choices have risen to the surface of my consciousness with increasing frequency lately.
My five-year-old daughter Holly is becoming fairly proficient at sounding out words, but at this point she prefers to have chapter books read aloud rather than wading through picture books on her own. Last month, I started reading her a book I adored as a child: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. When I told some friends about the book Holly was enjoying, they laughed at my description and commented, “The story of a large family of first-generation Orthodox Jews living in a tenement on the lower East Side of New York City. Holly must really be able to relate to that.”
Well, I responded, maybe the appeal lies in discovering a reality so different from ours. But as we were reading that evening, I noticed something. True, it’s about a family of five girls growing up in New York City on the eve of World War I. But in the first chapter, the big event is the girls’ weekly trip to their local library. Holly and I had taken our weekly walk to the library that same morning. And although we had passed a cow pasture and a soccer field whereas the characters’ route takes them past a pawn shop and a tin peddler’s pushcart, we’d had essentially the same conversation as the girls in the book – about the fun of picking out books every week.
My son Tim is facing a different issue where reading is concerned. Late last summer, he began The Lord of the Rings series, starting with The Hobbit and proceeding through the three books that follow. He finished the final appendix of the final book a month ago – and hasn’t wanted to read anything since, because in his mind, nothing could possibly compare to the joy of reading The Lord of the Rings. I try to woo him with other series – books clearly modeled on The Lord of the Rings, with craggy landscapes and glittering talismans on the cover – but he seems to want to wallow in literary bereavement for the time being. Once he moves past denial and toward acceptance, I plan to offer him Harry Potter, but for now, he’s apparently not ready for a rebound-relationship read.
Meanwhile, my father, a retiree who taught high school English for 40 years, is connected to yet another kind of literary audience. As a volunteer, he leads a book discussion group at the Concord prison every week. After I finished the current best-seller Water for Elephants, I recommended that he consider it for his prison group. The plot of the novel involves a second-rate traveling circus in Depression-era America. His group has had far-ranging reactions about all kinds of works of literature, and he often comments that their discussions tend to be surprisingly similar to those he remembers from his four decades of teaching high school – the key difference being that unlike overscheduled suburban teens, the inmates never complain that they didn’t have enough time to finish the book.
However, the prison has no budget for the book group, so Dad is somewhat limited to those books of which he can easily find a dozen or more used copies. At first it seemed unlikely that he’d be able to gather enough copies of a new release like Water for Elephants. But then I put the word out to two of my friends who love to read: Jenn, an editor; and Heidi, a teacher. Jenn gathered four copies from her extended family; Heidi drummed up ten more from her book group.
And as far as I know, not one of the people who were asked – not Jenn and Heidi, nor the relatives or book group members – hesitated at the idea of giving their books to inmates. No one questioned whether the prisoners were worthy enough recipients. People who love to read understand the immeasurable value of a good book – to convicts as well as to the rest of us. In fact, maybe to convicts even more.
I suppose I’ve known this for the 35 years I’ve been reading, but sometimes events conspire to show us things we probably knew all along. Books matter. Stories matter. They matter to a five-year-old in Carlisle learning about early 20th-century tenement life in New York. And to a third grader who can’t quite bear to pick up another book while The Lord of the Rings is still coursing through his dreams. And not least of all, to a group of Carlisle women who recently passed along their books to a dozen convicted criminals, knowing that what we read transcends so many of the incidental facts and characteristics that serve to define us. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito