Whatever the weaknesses and strengths that my parents brought to the table when raising their kids, there has been one that represents several others: reading. My father was a college educated bookworm, among many other talents, and he always had a pile of books by his night stand, tucked into his deluxe smoothed-to-the-softness-of-leather multi-layered paper bag ‘attache’ (he was a child of the great depression), or waiting next to his coffee by the couch. He read science fiction, spy novels, and a certain amount of philosophy. I often went and pilfered a book for something to read, at least, I did the sci-fi. Spy novels were so blech. Philosophy went over my head.
I didn’t get a lot of parenting when I was a child. But I did have examples in general right there in front of me, for me to pick and choose: which characteristics I would try, practice, and perfect. Reading became one of them. I was a sickly child who spent much of the hot humid summers before air conditioning in a darkish corner with a book. I read The Jungle Stories, I read Isaac Asimov, I read How to Train Your German Shepherd. There was Nancy Drew. I flipped through Dr. Spock, too, but I don’t remember much of that sinking in, which today I might consider a possible advantage. I read voraciously, but without discipline of any sort. I read the Alfred Hitchcock Tales of the Frightened which the school library had plenty of, kind of a forerunner to the Goosebumps series. I read Poe, and by the time I was 12 I was reading H.P. Lovecraft and any other horror or supernatural I could get my hands on. I tended to avoid much of mainstream childhood literature and most especially any books that sniffed of ‘good-for-you’. I listened to books and poetry on records borrowed from the library. I also watched tons of TV. And I wrote stories that pretty much reflected what was going into my head.
I studied pretty well in school and my reading supported me there as well. Spelling, vocabulary, story lines, Latin, and German, it was pretty easy. I liked declining nouns, conjugating verbs, and diagramming sentences, none of which they study in depth nowadays in school. It requires discipline that doesn’t fit in with today’s standards. My best friends tended to be fictional, even monstrous. The monstrous, I decided, was usually just the misunderstood.
In college I started experiencing the side effects of all that undisciplined reading. I simply didn’t see the point of reading certain things. They took more work than I was willing to give them. They didn’t read about vampires in college. Stephen King had vampires. I may have been a bit of a chore for some professors. I did get some good books on taking care of my pets.
Fast forward in this personal story to the birth of my first child. I was at a complete loss. I had very little mothering from my own experience to fall back on. But I had learned a love of reading, a love which survived public school and college. I found a book by Dr. Sears on baby care, and I often held my changeling of a child in one arm while reading that huge encyclopedic soft cover book in the other arm. Not an optimal form of parenting, but it worked. I discovered attachment parenting, which I found fit my heart. I read several other books on things women had once been taught by their mothers: breastfeeding, medical care, growth stages, food, sleep, and reading. Those books mothered me while I determined to be there for my children. I digested them, then acted as best I could, considering my parenting flew in the face of general society. This apparently is not something a new mother should do when she needs support in her early years as a mother. It may be what she has to do, but it comes at a price.Things have changed somewhat on this front, but I suspect I offended a lot of observing people with both my ignorance and my determination. I don’t really care anymore. Everybody survived.
Almost a couple of decades later I still love to read, even if it’s about reading. At present I’m reading Enchanted Hunters: the power of stories in childhood by Maria Tatar. Books represent some of the possibilities of relationships for me. They have also served as a source of truth and other information (ok, lies) that led me from one path to another until I came to the point I am at in my life now. I have learned to value truth, and learned from my mistakes. I have even developed a taste for non fiction.
And I love reading to my kids. We consumed books when they were really little. I read twenty books in one sitting, or one book twenty times. I got to the point where I would lie in bed reciting Goodnight Moon to my nursing child as we rested from the world, wrapped in the soft touch of our cozy dark night. Young children are a great gift of magic for us, one of the greatest resources the world will ever know. It was always assumed that they were a never-ending resource, but these days I mourn that they are becoming one of those fragile nonrenewable resources that activist groups demand legislative protection for. Except that experience shows how legislation tends to fail children. And childhood.
So I parented by books for a long time there.I also read most books before my children do. I’m sure to repeat myself on this topic, but I am amazed that so many people who declare that fruits and vegetables are far superior to twinkies or even white bread have no such sense of discrimination when it comes to what goes in a kid’s head. I don’t rely on books that carry the self-righteous whiff of good-for-you stuffiness that pretends to teach kids things of worth while surely teaching them to despise the good in the library. I mean the honestly good stuff. Some of this may change from family to family, but over all, the classics are classics because they have stood the test of time. So serve a heaping plateful of The Secret Garden, with some comic books on the side. Then break the rules and serve comic books all Saturday morning as the rain comes down.
Books are a large part of my life, a spiritual guidance, a mental stimulation, a historical perspective, a glorious two page art spread, a clever comic strip. They are my mistakes: when I was really into vampires, I stumbled across a book at the library titled The Book of the Dead and gleefully carried it home, thinking, “Oh, cool! The Egyptians wrote monster stories too!” Only when I cracked that tome open, I discovered something entirely different: a ‘new’ culture, a spiritual treatise, an ancient story from a real people. The English was lined up just below the hieroglyphics on each page. I very nearly, accidentally, joyously, turned into an archeologist right then and there. My inner linguist did begin to bud. I spent hours with that thing, feeling my mind open in ways I didn’t usually encounter. It was a delightful, heady experience. I was sorry to let that particular copy go back- I considered stealing it and telling them I had lost it. That temptation only happened rarely- another was the incredible copy of Treasure Island I checked out of the library one summer. Between the text and the illustrations, I was transported to salt smells and sweltering high seas and scarred, desperate pirates with their rough ropes and harsh language. Yeah, I wanted to steal that book, too. I didn’t, and I’m glad. If I really want to, I can do some pretty intense searches on the internet for lost books of my childhood- I got myself a copy of The Man Who Lost His Head, didn’t I? And Waldo, The Jumping Dragon? But while the book represents so much for me, getting a copy now would not necessarily work. The memory of the event, that book in that scratchy green chair with the summer drifting in through open windows, one skinny leg thrown over the arm rest, thick glasses curving my world, the edge of the binding digging into my leg, why, that IS part of Treasure Island for me now. It just is. The Book of the Dead I read flat on my stomach on the floor of the same living room. I made a fist for my chin to rest in, and eventually neck and hand and eyes tired. I was forced by my mortality to get up and tend to my body!
Now that’s books for ya. My kids have some pretty deep relationships with their favorites as well. They share a similar love for some of the same books, taught me to love new ones, and then on top of everything else we enjoy having different tastes as well. My husband was the one who got me seriously considering non-fiction as well. I don’t read the non-fiction he does (not into battles all that much, thank you), but a good author biography will soothe my mortal nerves when I need it.
Reading isn’t a hobby that elicits a lot of interest when you mention it at a party. Reading is usually pretty anti-social, unless it is a serious interest where two bibliophiles stumble into a discussion about the changes in character growth in something like Harry Potter and some other thing like the Earthsea series. Or how old they were when they finally discovered the Little House series. Or how series compare with stand-alones. Yeah, this ain’t football stats. It has its own world (worlds) to move between. It is tightly tied to the dock of childhood, and I feel strangely for children who sail off into adulthood without their proper consignment of fables and tales stashed below decks. The magic of childhood is magnified and transformed when we read; whether as children or as the parents, the effect is, not the same, but similar. Reading a book is like many aspects of life that have a two-edged binding. It has a beginning, and it has to end. It remains to be seen what we manage to take with us, and what we leave behind.