Posts Tagged 'reading'

She gets it about the books

Matt F: “So many books…”
Walkin’ Dave S:”…so few chairs.”

I almost never buy books anymore. So many books have been given to me that I have yet to read, and I have in times past bought so many books that I have yet to read, that to willfully acquire more of them seems sort of obscene. I’m a slow reader, and whereas in my bachelor life I knocked down a John Barth in a delicious week or two of sprawling in various positions across various couches while a variety of cats — mine and others’ — occasionally broke the silence by waking up on the back of the sofa behind my head and beginning to lick their paws, and whereas my helpmeet shares with me a fondness for Reading in Bed, which we indulged as happily as two mice before we had children — I say, whereas all the foregoing, nowadays we can’t read in bed without turning a light on and waking our baby, whose crib is in the same room, and there are none of those expansive days of doing nothing but read, not even in a winter as bleak as this past one was.

So I read on the bus a little (inbound only — on the way home it puts me instantly to sleep) and of an evening after the girls are down I might put off the dishes for awhile and reread a few pages of the book I’m reading in an attempt to find where I quit reading or fell asleep last time. This results in a real page advance of about .72 pages.

Also, my reading adventures are composed of such quixotic investigations into things I just happened to hear about that I am often unsure whether I really want to own a book that I very much want to get my hands on. Case in point: a book I’m fitfully poking at by Albion Tourgée called “Fool’s Errand”, a novel about the Reconstruction period written just a decade or so after the end of the War Between the States. I happened recently to see Tourgée’s name mentioned derisively in the “libretto” of D. W. Griffith’s ridiculous (but historically much praised) silent movie “Birth of a Nation.” Tourgée offers a searingly honest appraisal of “what’s up with the South” after spending years there trying to help in a reconstruction that he eventually decided was a failure. I’ll go to the library for these books, and then if I like them I’ll add them to a list of books I want to buy someday, just to have. 

The Spooky Hares look like they're listening to some whispering of the books.

But none of this is what I wanted to tell you. The fact is, I used to buy lots of books. I bought a lot of books that I had already read and would not read again, in fact. When I got hip to the whole idea of the worth of a first edition first printing with an untorn dust-jacket with a price in the front flap (no price means it’s possibly a worthless book-club edition, which can also be sniffed out by looking for a small sometimes square impression on the back lower right corner of the cloth), I began collecting my favorite books by my favorite authors in out-of-print hardback. I was abetted in this addiction by eBay, which made it possible for me to get some of them very reasonably, and by, which enabled me to find any book instantly, anywhere in the world. It used to be that you went down to Shorey’s Book Store in the Pike Place Market and asked them to do a search on an out-of-print book, and they took your info (on paper, with a pencil), and called you two years later with the jubilant announcement that your book had been found in Upper Volta and that it was waiting for you at the shop. Of course, Shorey’s is now gone and so is Upper Volta. 

Even before this, I loved old hardbacks. I have a few on my shelf that I inherited from my mother, whose family was big on books. These, along with a few of the treasures I collected later, survived the Purges. A few years ago something turned for me and I gave away or sold, in spasms, most of my hardback collection — having to box it all up several times in my adult life while friends helping me move rubbed their aching backs and said things like “what, more boxes of books?” did a lot to help this season arrive. I hardly even notice these old friends anymore (I mean the books), so often has my eye scanned past them looking for something new on my shelf to read, maybe something I forgot to read, or started but found that its time had not yet arrived.

But again, none of this is what I wanted to tell you. I have old books around, I guess is what I’m saying. Mara is not yet able (or willing, perhaps) to read on her own, and we’re not hurrying her. Every day she gets closer. She falls asleep every night amid heaps of both paperback and hardback books that she pulls into her bed and “reads” by nightlight light. She loves stories and loves being read to. She wrote a few simple words on a pad the other day with a pencil, and got them mostly right (“piano” she spelled “PANO” but that is a perfectly rational orthography at her stage, when the distinction between a letter’s spoken name — “pee” — and the sound it makes is still not clear).

Children's, what's left of sci-fi and fantasy, the Barth I couldn't part with (cut me some slack, I got rid of half of it!) and a few other treasures.

A week or two ago she brought me a dusty old hardcover book from a small rampart of old tomes held up by the two Spooky Hares on a sidetable in our living room and asked me to read it. There were some color plates in it that showed children larking about, so she knew it would be her sort of thing, and she was apparently in one of those moods for something new that I can so relate to. The book was “The Little Lame Prince” a book that we had read as a class when I was in First or Second grade at Bellevue Christian School. A decade and a half ago, before you could find everything instantly online, I stumbled on this book in an antique store, and, remembering how magical it seemed to me and how its reading had shaped so strongly the geography of fantasy and fairy stories in my mind, I pounced on it. A few years later I read it and found that it made me kind of gag a little. It was really both saccharine and didactic. I put it on the shelf never bothering to read the other stories compiled in the same volume by the same author, identified mysteriously as “Miss Mulock”.

I didn’t want to read “The Little Lame Prince” to her so I started in on “The Adventures of a Brownie”, which are six tales of the relationship between a passel of farm kids and a strange, tiny brown magical man, sort of an imp. They’re kinda spooky, like old fairy tales tend to be, but Mara has a pretty high threshhold for things that creep other kids out, and also for the kind of Old World language (and subject matter) that one finds in children’s books with color plates in them:

Never were such fine chickens as my last brood!”
“I thought they were ducklings.”
“How you catch me up, you rude old man!…” 

So we read the half dozen adventures and Mara loved them.

Tonight when I was getting her into bed and it was time for books, she asked if we had any more “old books”. If we did, she said, it might be “something that would interest me.” Inside me my heart did a little gleesome flippety flop, and I thought “she gets it”. She’ll grow up in a world of Kindles and Nooks and Direct Hyperverbal Storyness Implantation*, and that’s all perhaps as it should be… but she loves old books. She sees them as special, containing special interest for her. 

An oldie but goodie, and illustrations by Pauline Baynes! Click to see the entire cover larger.

After rubbing my chin theatrically for a moment, I preceded her downstairs to the bookshelf where sit my hardback editions of “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” and “The Gammage Cup” and LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the Bles editions of the Narnia stories and the 1965 first edition (alas not first impression) hardback box set of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy (with maps) — all awaiting my daughters’ interest in due time, and pulled down Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”, a thin volume copiously adorned with illustrations by that magnificent expositor of the Narnia tales, the inimitable Pauline Baynes. We took it upstairs and I read her several pages, not quite remembering what parts may require some careful explaining, but anyway journeying again, this time with my daughter, into a land of magic. I have waited so long. 

*I just made that up, but you never know…    


History’s fascinating quagmire

Note: The shape of our lives these days is such that I still haven’t had a lot of time or the energy to cook up anything fresh for you. This too shall pass, I’ve been promised, and I promise in turn that there will be more current posts soon. But for now, here’s one of the many posts I have written earlier and for whatever reason — too many ideas going, didn’t like the flow, wasn’t that posts “time”, etc. — never published. I’ve tied up the loose ends but I left words like “yesterday” in place, even though in this case yesterday was months ago. I do this in order to preserve the original post’s raison d’être, if that makes sense. As a sort of epilogue up front, this was as great a read as I thought it would be.


The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

— Harry S. Truman

About five years ago on a trip back to Angela’s hometown of St. Louis, someone told me about a book he was reading called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It was one New Yorker’s telling of the year of nights he spent standing in an alley off of Gold Street and Fulton in Lower Manhattan observing the behavior of rats. It sounded crazy interesting to me, and when we found ourselves killing a little extra time in a small independent bookshop before our flight home, the book found me and I bought it.

It turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. It was not just about the guy’s experience standing in the alley. That’s just the thread that holds it all together. He weaves into his tale the history of the alley, indeed of the rounded hill that still partially (and almost invisibly) exists beneath the tall buildings there and was called Gold Hill before there were streets. He rides along with pest control professionals and records their anectodes and wisdom about New York’s rat problem. All the while I read it, I kept thinking, this guy surely must have come across Joseph Mitchell’s “Rats on the Waterfront” article, and indeed, in the extensive and entertaining notes section, which I read all of despite my long-standing agreement with myself that notes sections are optional and usually not worth trudging through, he mentions Mitchell’s essay.

The book marked a decisive turn in my reading life. I had for years been reading novels, centered around Helprin and Barth, as I’ve told you before. In the few years before reading the rat book, I had begun to feel restless. I started reading ancient works of history, such as Herodotus and Thucydides and the writings of the Desert Fathers. (I also bought Virgil and even Gibbons, just didn’t get around to them.)

I found I enjoyed reading history, something I did not really know about myself. Then I ran into Mitchell, who as you know has become my literary hero. When I read Rats, I found a living author who had picked up something akin to the ball that had been dropped when Mitchell stopped writing — like John McPhee only with more caffeine in him — and it was my impression that he wasn’t even really a writer-type, that he was a plain-talking New Yorker who had a gift for inquiry and expression, and just happened to write a book. Until today, I had even forgotten his name even though his book still occupies an honored place on my bookshelf.

'Vaguely interesting nonfiction about all kinds of subjects' -- the perfect read. Book image (probably) copyright Anchor/Doubleday.

Rats ratified the alteration in course my reading had been making. From then on I looked for books like that, where a topic — any old topic — became the focus of a journey through time and culture and science and “collective memory” (you’ve heard me use that phrase before, yup). Actually, that’s what was so great about the book. It was supposedly about rats, but it touched on the whole world.

One day a coworker of mine saw the book Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House by Sarah Messer, lying on my desk. He picked it up, flipped it over, and said, “Is this one of those NPR books?”

“NPR books?”

“Yeah, you know — vaguely interesting non-fiction about all kinds of subjects written by liberals.”

He had described my new reading jag precisely.

Yesterday on BLDGBLOG, I became captivated, as I often do, by Geoff Manaugh’s reflections on some books he’d been reading. One was a book about the Meadowlands, a patch of polluted New Jersey swampland east of Manhattan, a wilderness between the world’s largest skyline and the suburbs beyond, criss-crossed by highways and dotted with the occasional warehouse or motel. The rubble from some of London’s bombed-out buildings from World War II lie here just below the mucky soil, believe it or not, as do a vast heap of other interesting stories. When Manaugh named the author, Robert Sullivan, it tickled my memory, and I had a hunch. To my delight I discovered that sure enough, Robert Sullivan was the same author who had written Rats.
The crazy part, or part of the crazy part, is that Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City was written way back in 1999. At the time I read Rats (ca. 2006) I hadn’t realized Sullivan had written anything previously. I don’t now remember where I had gotten that impression. The other part of the crazy part is that between the writing of Meadowlands and Rats, Sullivan came out to my neck of the woods and wrote a book (A Whale Hunt) about the efforts of a local First Nations tribe to embark on a traditional whale hunt, a quest I remember because of the news coverage and controversy the project garnered.

I’m pretty excited to learn that Sullivan is fully in the game as a writer (has been all along), and as you can see, I’ve got some reading to do. As my old friend Walkin’ Dave once said, “so many books, so few chairs.” 


“Once in a while
You open up just like a child
See things fresh and new
I wish this for you
I wish this for you”

— Victoria Williams

Mara read for the first time today. It happened in the car. It happened in the underground parking lot of Whole Foods. We had driven in there and parked, but Angela hadn’t yet finished making the grocery list, so we all sat in the car for a few minutes while she worked out what meals she’d fix this week and what she’d need. For a few minutes Mara and I played; I lowered the back of the driver seat and pretended to be sleeping and snoring.

I noticed a sign on a nearby wall. lit by that dim and depressing garage lighting, whose first word was “NOTICE” writ in large white letters against a black background. I suggested to Mara that we work out what it said. I asked her what the first letter was, and what sound it made, and then the second, and then the third, each time adding the new sound to the word.

“‘N’ and ‘O’ makes ‘No…'”

“‘No’ and ‘T’ makes ‘Not…'”

She knew N and O but had forgotten T momentarily, and she didn’t remember I or C. But when we were all done — adding a Silent E at the end “just to hold it all together” — I pronounced the entire word slowly. Mara recognized it and chirped “Notice!”

Angela then wrote C A T on the back of her shopping list and said, “Here Mara, try this one.”

I looked at it and said, “Oh, I’ll bet she can do that one without any help.” I said this by way of supplying positive chatter, though I secretly thought she might need to be walked through the sounds and I was surpised by what happened next.

Mara regarded the letters for a moment in silence. She didn’t open her mouth. She looked at them as though she expected them to say something to her, which apparently is what happened, because after a long moment she suddenly said “cat”.

Angela reports that a tingle went down her spine when this happened. I myself sat back upright in my seat. The moment of what had just happened hit us both and we looked at each other with boggling eyes. Then we expressed perhaps an overabundance of joy and amazement through high-fives and a lot of whooping, beginning that process (one we usually outsource to the state) of replacing Mara’s innate and intrinsic drive to learn with an extrinsic approval-based motivation to succeed. But we couldn’t help ourselves. Mara read a word!

Okay, but children have been known to memorize the shape of words they see a lot, and we do own The Cat in the Hat and many other books in which cats figure prominently. I once tried to teach a man named Edward to read. He was about sixty and had suffered from some developmental disabilities early in life. I was about twenty-seven and I was volunteering in a literacy program, the only time I have volunteered unselfishly in any organized enterprise. Edward had already had several tutors and had not learned how to read. He was very familiar with the materials and knew the stories by heart, which made it difficult for me to see at first that when he said “cat” he was recognizing the whole word, not a word made up of letters. (This is in fact what the rest of us readers do after we’ve been reading awhile, but the difference is we have gone through a process first of recognizing the word’s constituent parts, and we know what to do if someone takes those parts and rearranges them. Edward could not do that.) So just to be sure what was happening was really happening, Angela wrote B A T and again Mara looked at it for a minute, this time sounding the B the way we’ve taught her. “B – B – B” she said, and then,”bat”.


Lesson One in the underground parking school

We squealed with excitement. Mara did too, and she asked if we could do another. And another. We all started getting high on it. Mara read, with increasing difficulty, TOP, SAT and BAG, before Angela and I got some oxygen in our brains and realized that we were already pushing our daughter unnecessarily. If we pushed further, she would experience failure and disappointment, and there was no need to rush toward that. Her spontaneous achievement was a beautiful beginning, completely sufficient and perfect in the moment. We are so proud of her, but we want her to continue to own and drive her own learning process. We believe kids naturally do this until they are presented with such idiocies as homework assignments that take longer to do than any three class periods combined. 

Yesterday, perhaps not coincidentally, we visited a cooperative school in the University District, meeting the teachers in an open house there. We were really impressed with their whole philosophy, especially given the shape of public school policy today, but we both also had the thought, “why shouldn’t we do this ourselves?” What these teachers are really doing is “listening” (they say this word often and each time they use it they reflexively put their hands up to their ears) and letting the interests of the children drive the subject matter. In their own words, they are mostly socializing the children in an environment where the children continue to do what they have been doing all their lives: soak up knowledge about the world around them. Angela and I both feel this is the right approach, but we also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to share more immediately in that process if it’s possible for us to do so (i.e., homeschool).

Angela put it well tonight when she said, “Why should someone else get to experience all of Mara’s ‘firsts’ when it could be us?” The answer to that question for many couples is an economic answer, because both parents must work days, and for others it is a matter of personal sanity. Being with a child all day every day uses up a lot of one’s emotional energy. Ultimately, if we go that route, it will be Angela who bears the burden when it’s a grind. But I love her outlook. When it’s not a grind but instead a golden moment, why shouldn’t that moment be experienced by us as a family, as it was today?

On the way to church, a conversation arose about the planet Mars. Mara said she wanted to know more about Mars, what it was like. Angela said she didn’t know much about it, but that we could do some research.

That’s how it happens.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt