The Reading Rainbow

IMG_5485Our house is a book house, where everybody is reading something all the time. And the nice thing about that, aside from the obvious, is that we get book recommendations from each other. Many of the books I’ve read in the past few years have come from these recommendations, and sometimes even a book I’ve read before is brought back to me in a new way when one of the family reads it. This was true of Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo, which a few years ago became the Beautiful Dreamer’s favorite. I had read it long before, and remembered liking it, but Because of Winn Dixie stuck in my memory so much I think I passed over Tiger Rising until, out of curiosity about why my daughter loved it so much, I read it again. I discovered that it’s a small gem, painful and beautiful at once. So I learned something both about the Beautiful Dreamer and about rereading books.

Her older sister, let’s call her the Conductor, introduced me to the lyrical contemporary/historical fiction The World to Come, by Dara Horn,  and the Rocket Scientist brought home several fantasy series I had never heard of before, in addition to pointing me toward a fascinating discussion about philosophy and fantasy that I’m still chewing over. My youngest, the Castle Builder, showed me the hilarious The Name of This Book is Secret series, which changed the entire feel of footnotes for me, probably forever. Then there’s the fun detective novels that Superman reads in alphabetical order.

And today, the Book Princess quoted from a book of poems that reminded me how well words can capture the exact feel of being alive in a specific moment. Here’s the poem she mentioned, from a book called Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall:

“And the pomegranates,/
like memories, are bittersweet/
as we huddle together,/
remembering just how good/
life used to be” (p.129).

All I can say to that is wow. I think I have some reading to do.

The Sound of a Picture Book

Mother-And-Child-Reading_ Frederick Warren Freer

Mother-And-Child-Reading_ Frederick Warren Freer (Photo credit: DesEquiLIBROS)

Today I had the loveliest experience while at Politics and Prose, a wonderful bookstore near where I live. While browsing in the children’s section, I walked past a mother and her little boy, sitting on the floor, reading together. The mother had one of those voices made for reading out loud, soft in all the right places, with long pauses so her son could stare at the pictures, and, when he was really excited, reach out and touch them. Listening to her made me remember how much I loved reading to my own kids when they were small. There’s nothing like the music of a voice, reading. And so, in honor of the wonderful sound of a picture book, here’s a quote from one of my favorites, Tell Me Some More, by Crosby Bonsall:

“I know a place,” said Andrew to Tim, “if I tell you, will you believe me?”

“I will believe you,” said Tim, “I will believe you. Tell me and see.”

“I know a place,” said Andrew, “where I can hold an elephant under my arm.”

“The trunk and all?” Tim said.

“The trunk and all,” said Andrew.

The place? The library. And, though she doesn’t mention it, bookstores too.

What if?

book stack

book stack (Photo credit: ginnerobot)

As a fiction writer, I spend a lot of time asking myself the question “what if?” And the other day, the what if on my mind was “what if I couldn’t read?”

I got to thinking that awful thought because of a recent article by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, a review of a book on female literacy by Belinda Jack, of Oxford. Acocella’s article traces the history of female literacy from ancient times, and she talks about the kind of introspection that comes from reading, as well as how reading allows a person to learn about the world beyond his or her own experience. She writes:

“Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore, they seemed stupid.”

This isn’t just a bygone mindset, obviously. In parts of the world today, notably in places like Pakistan, girls are kept from education by force. Just a little while ago, 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai was recently shot for the crime of advocating education for women. That’s how threatening it is to some men in primitive societies that a woman might become literate.

And so I thought, what would my life be like if I couldn’t read?

It’s actually hard to think it. Reading seems as natural to me as breathing. I can’t not read. When words are around, they catch my eye and just speak. And yet, I pushed my mind there. What if all those letters were like a foreign language to me? What if they were impenetrable?

My days, which now revolve around the written word, would be unrecognizable. In the modern world, especially, you can’t really maneuver most daily tasks without reading. I wouldn’t be able to drive, because I couldn’t read a sign. I wouldn’t be able to grocery shop very well. I wouldn’t be able to follow a recipe.

I also would likely have a shorter life. As many studies have reported, better education is tied to longer lifespan, and literacy especially is important to good health. (

But on an even deeper level, I wouldn’t be me without reading. I wouldn’t know about the world outside my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have the fuel for all the thoughts and dreams that have shaped my life.

This, most of all, is why in primitive societies, both in the past and now, female literacy is so dangerous. Reading makes you ask questions. It gives you ideas; it expands the realm of the possible. Reading is power.

No wonder people kill and die for it. I thank God every day I was born into the richness of a culture where literacy is a given. I pray for a day when my next what if comes true: what if everyone could read? The world, I think, would be a nicer place.

The Joys of Rereading

Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

There are certain writers whose voices never stop echoing in my ears. At the age of 12, I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the seventh grade, and realized, suddenly, that people could make magic with words. I’d always loved stories – my father used to sit in the doorway to the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was little, and read by the light in the hall. Sometimes he’d read mysteries – Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys – doling out chapters like candy — (just one more, please!) until either he or we fell asleep still wanting more. On the best of those nights, though, he would tell his own stories. And those stories planted the seeds of a writer in me.

But it was not until I read Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird that I learned the magnetic power of voice. That novel gripped me from start to finish, and I remember thinking, right when I finished it: Wow. I want to do that.

I never stopped thinking that. And that’s because something about Miss Lee’s voice just kept echoing and echoing. I loved it so much I returned to it again and again over the years. I think I stopped counting when I’d read the book about 13 times. I read it first just to be back in that place, with those people. She’d made them all that good. But after a while, when I’d begun to study writing in earnest, I read it to understand how she put things together, how she achieved what she did. I’ve never gotten tired of it yet.

I wish she’d written another book. But that one has kept me for a lifetime.