Friday, May 31, 2024

Summer Reading

With days in the Northern Hemisphere lengthening into summer, my mind inevitably turns to reading. Reading books, especially fiction, was a habit I developed in my childhood when the local library or maybe an elementary school teacher would "challenge" children to read 20 books or some other arbitrary quantity. The titles were left up to us. I would keep two stacks of books in my room: those I'd not read and those I'd read. I enjoyed the summer-long process of moving those books from one stack to another, but also, particularly the process of returning to the books I'd read, holding them in my hands, studying the covers and reflecting on the worlds they contained. It was while doing this that I realized that one of the truly magical things about books was that not only did they take me places, they allowed me, for a time to be a different person.

Seeing the world, for instance, through the eyes of Frank and Joe Hardy, the mystery-solving boys written under the pen-name of Franklin W. Dixon, made me a courageous boy, resourceful enough to outwit adult criminals. It was a direct extension of my pretend play that typically involved me as a cowboy, soldier, Indian, or superhero (mostly Batman).

I'm sure there was some sort of reward involved for reading those 20 books, perhaps a coupon for a scoop of ice cream at a participating merchant, but I really don't recall. I knew even then that adults struggle to believe that children will read without some sort of extra inducement. But for me, at least, that was entirely beside the point, especially since the whole thing was being done on an honor system. You simply wrote down the books you'd read on a special mimeographed sheet the library provided. Even then I realized that it would be easy enough to simply cheat, and I was sure that some of the other kids did so in order to get that scoop, but it was those stacks of books, those stacks of lives, that motivated me.

My summer hobby has become a lifelong one. Today, the walls of my home are lined with books, thousands of them, some I've read, some waiting to be read. I read year-round, of course, but summer remains inextricably connected with books.

A week ago, I loaned a book to a new friend. She too is a reader and our conversation made me think of the author Rebecca Solnit who she had never read. I gave her my copy of The Faraway Nearby to take with her. Last night I saw her again. I don't like to pressure people about reading. Indeed, I don't even really expect people to read the books I loan them (honestly, I don't even expect to get them back), but she, on her own, began telling me about her impressions of the first couple chapters. It's been awhile since I've read this book. I recall it as a magical blend of memoir, philosophy, travelogue, essay, and literary discussion, particularly about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I'd been inspired by Solnit's book to re-read Frankenstein, experiencing again, but from Solnit's perspective.

My new friend, however, kept talking about mirrors, an aspect of the book, I'd forgotten. When I looked at my reading notes (yes, I like to write down passages and ideas from my reading) I found this wonderful, heartbreaking passage about Solnit's mother: 

She thought of me as a mirror but she didn't like what she saw and blamed the mirror. When I was thirty, in one of the furious letters I sometimes composed and rarely sent, I wrote, "You want me to be some kind of mirror that will reflect back the self-image you want to see -- perfect mother, totally loved, always right -- but I am not a mirror, and the shortcomings you see are not my fault. And I can never get along with you as long as you continue demanding I perform miracles."


I've heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter. Early on, she assured me that she had measured me as a toddler, doubled my height, and deduced that I would be five foot two, seven inches shorter than her, when I grew up and that my hair -- white blond in my first years, lemon and then honey and then dirty blond streaked by the sun with gold as I grew older -- was going to turn brown at any moment . . . This short, brown-haired daughter she decided upon was not terrifying, and she envisioned a modest future for me and occasionally tried to keep me to it.

I'd obviously thought enough of these passages at the time to preserve them as notes, but my most enduring take-away from Solnit's book was the theme of storytelling, and particularly fairy tales.

Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans, of humans transformed into birds and beasts or otherwise enchanted away from their own selves and lives. Even the princesses are chattel to be disowned or sold by fathers, punished by stepmothers, or claimed by princes, though they often assert themselves in between and are rarely as passive as the cartoon versions. Fairly tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one . . . In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness -- from beehives that are not raided, birds that are not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis, in fairy tales and sometimes in actuality.

Delightfully, Solnit has in recent years applied her talents to reimagining classic fairy tales: Cinderella Liberator and Waking Beauty, both of which I have on my own shelves, books I've read but am now inspired to hold in my hands again. There is a line in Waking Beauty that has become something of a touchstone for me over the past couple years: The center of the universe is everywhere, and of course it always seems to be right where you are, so there are more centers than there are drops of rain in a rainstorm or stars in the sky when the rainclouds blow away or grains of sand under the sea.

In her notes at the end of the book Solnit writes: "Waking Beauty portrays a world in which each of us is at the center of our own story and all of us exist in a forest of others' stories. Becoming aware of that is part of developing social awareness and empathy (which some kids have instinctively and some adults lack alarmingly or have been taught to sabotage)."

School has a horrible habit of ruining reading for so many of us. The reading list, curated by adults, no matter how thoughtfully, is no match for the self-selected stack. To be tested on a book's contents, to be judged or graded or rewarded or punished robs us of the open-ended journey with its detours, crossroads, and unexpected vistas of a world through the eyes of a protagonist who we are privileged to become for a time. It is the only way I've found to explore those infinite centers of the universe. This is what reading is all about for me: every book, every perspective, every center makes my own life bigger. When I pick up a new book, my heart beats a little faster. I'm about to become another person.

"A reader lives a thousands lives before he dies," writes the author George R. R. Martin, "The man who never reads lives only one." 


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! This is a clip from my incredible conversation with Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the the Free Range Parenting movement. If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversation with Lenore and other early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast here or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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