Monday, March 03, 2008

Reading is Fundamental

I love that Bambina loves to read. Every night we only manage to get her to go to bed and sleep by picking out the book that we will read first thing the next morning. We get her to sit still for 30 minutes and eat a three-course dinner by reading books at the table. She has books in her bed, books in the car, and books in her preschool cubby. It makes me so happy I could cry because I absolutely want her to have the inner life that books provide. It's such a cliche, but when I was a little fat kid with not a lot of money I just lost myself in stories where I imagined I was the protagonist. As I got older, I found messages and meaning in books I don't think I could have received otherwise. And what girl of my generation didn't go through a period of time where she thought that Judy Blume was writing directly to her? And then in high school my beloved teacher, the nattily-dressed Mr. Douglas H., turned me on to Charles Dickens and my life has never been the same since.

I was reminded of all this going through some old boxes that we moved from DC. In one box I found a bunch of my college papers from English classes as well as notes from books I'd read post-college. In a hat tip to William F. Buckley, a man with whom I could not have disagreed more politically, I found more notes than I've ever written before from the time I read his compendium of writings. Not only notes, but a list of words I wrote down (such as "peroration") while reading so I could look them up in the dictionary. I also found my old collection of Flannery O'Connor short stories. If you've never heard of Flannery O'Connor, now is the time to familiarize yourself. She was a Georgia native, a Catholic in a Protestant land, and perhaps one of the most unbelievably outre writers I've ever read. Her works are very Southern Gothic, and all have themes relating to religion and heaven and salvation. But how she gets there is through all kinds of double entendres (one character is named "Manley Pointer"), violence and bizarritude.

I laughed to remember the days when I had time to think through "The Significance of the Book 'Human Development' in Flannery O'Connor's Revelation" and when I not only had time to read and digest Buckley, but to take notes for further study. And then I realized that I have no excuse for not diving back in. My 50 books by 2009 program had kind of fallen by the wayside, and I was starting to wonder how I could credibly continue to encourage Bambina's bibliophilia when she rarely sees me reading anything that is not a recipe or an receipt. I know that this will all be easier when Bambina can read books herself, but in the meantime, I have started to read a book whenever she is playing quietly. Not only does it let me actually kill a chapter or two before I do my usual late-night eyes-half-closed reading, but it also lets her see that reading is something enjoyable for her Mama too, even if (like today) that book is a fitness book by Martina Navratilova.

With any luck, Bambina will love Dickens too. Until then, we're reading the Fancy Nancy books and The Seven Chinese Sisters like they are going out of style. But you know what's so cool about it? Good books are always in style. And thank god for that.

*ps--please do not purchase the 1938 version of The Seven Chinese Brothers, called The Five Chinese Brothers. It is way racist with slanty-eyed caricatures of people actually colored yellow and who all look alike, literally. The entire town looks alike, not just the brothers. And never mind the subject matter, that the brothers are trying to avoid the executioner for upsetting the emperor. Some of the reviewers say, "I loved this book as a child!" Please also note the ones written by Asian kids who didn't have the luxury of just seeing it as a book in school, but who noticed that everyone was YELLOW and slanty-eyed, and who suffered at the hands of white kids accordingly. More importantly, let's just not offer this stuff to our kids as normal just because it's "a classic." Classics should sometimes be retired, and this one gets my vote.


Anonymous said...

OK, you made me go to the dictionary with "outre"! I did read Flannery O'Connor in HS and College, but would love to re-read some of her stuff - so tasty!

Anonymous said...

I am one of the clueless white people who loved that book as a kid. Anyone who can look at it now and not see the racism is making a concerted effort to not do so. I wouldn't want my kids' Asian friends to come over and see that book on our shelves. i agree let's retire it.

JulieG said...

So are you counting the Fancy Nancy books as part of the 50 books you are trying to read :)?

Anonymous said...

Is it sad that I actually let out of a shriek of delight when I saw that there is a NEW Fancy Nancy book about butteflies??