Old Books For a New Generation

One of the earliest pictures of my son and me features the two of us lying in bed as I read aloud to him from Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag. He was two months old. He didn’t care much for the essay on Leni Riefenstahl, but he was riveted by the pattern of the letters in front of him. Books have always fascinated him, but for the words more than the pictures. Not that he doesn’t enjoy a good drawing. He liked to point to the comb and the brush and the bowl full of mush as much as the next baby, but what he really cares about is language—the shape of words, their sounds, the rhythms they create when strung together. This was true when he was spitting up all over the place, and it’s still true now that he’s three and can keep his intake to himself.

We read to him from just about everything. When one of my newspapers or magazines arrives in the mail, he climbs into my lap and sits captivated as I sound out the titles (for him). “This is The New Yorker,” I say, pointing to each letter and then pronouncing the words slowly. “This is the London Review of Books.” We have gone through this routine so many times that he now recognizes “books” wherever he sees it. The same is true, oddly enough, for “Afghanistan.”

His favorite reading materials, however, are children’s classics. Last night, Mommy read to him the first two chapters of The Trumpet of the Swan during his bath. He wanted to read more, but the water was getting cold. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a big hit, as are the original Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, and the works of Beatrix Potter. He is enchanted by all of these books, even the Potter tales, which contain such charming and heartwarming plot points as Benjamin Bunny’s father thrashing his son to within an inch of his life, and the mice that get chopped up very fine before being put into a pie. I think the Sontag essays are more humane, but perhaps it’s just me.

The important point is that our son loves to read. He spends at least an hour each day reading or being read to. His enthusiasm isn’t surprising, given that his parents spend much of their time reading when they’re not writing stories of their own. He’ll learn to discriminate eventually. For now, it’s a pleasure to watch his endless fascination with old books. It encourages us, not just as parents but also as writers. It gives us hope that our writing efforts may one day become beloved old books for future readers to discover. We just have to make sure that we don’t give them antiquated storylines to wince at. One hopes that we have learned to discriminate, too.

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