When I think of the thing I remember my parents doing most when I was a kid, it’s probably reading. My mom curled up with a book or 3 on the love seat in the living room, on the sectional in the family room, sometimes sat on the front porch steps. My dad stretched out on the chaise on lazy weekend mornings, the Sunday Chronicle in his lap, Herman Wouk or David McCullough in his hands. Books and newspapers and magazines were unquestionably an integral part of my early life. Not just board books and picture books and chapter books, but real, adult books. Reading wasn’t a chore or an exercise, but a thing my brother and I did constantly, unprompted. Boredom was a rare thing in our house, because if you’d exhausted your options in games or TV shows or toys, there was always a book or magazine within easy reach. Books were my friends in a way that people sometimes weren’t, and my parents showed me that could prove true far into adulthood.
Back then, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I never knew how singular my reading experiences, in many ways, were. The late-night sneak attacks into my father’s office for more and more advanced contraband (Twain and Dickens at first, Orwell and Huxley, later). The early morning forays out onto the deck, Pelican Shakespeare in hand. I’m sure my parents knew about my supposedly sneaky snatching of their books, but they never said a word about it. It was the worst kept secret in our house and the most pivotal one in my world. Reading was an explicit pleasure, a relaxing past time, an exciting adventure. It was oftentimes comforting and sometimes uncomfortable. It endlessly expanded my world. It proved to me in a concrete way that learning wasn’t something that stopped when school did. If my parents were always reading, that meant when I was grown-up, I would be too.
In addition to the stories told within their pages, my parents’ books also told me stories of their own. My father’s name, a date, and sometimes a course name were often inscribed neatly on the flyleaf of musty-smelling paperbacks and hardcovers with the jackets still on. I liked to try and read them in the order he had. Ludlum and Michener, Fleming and Asimov. Sci-fi and philosophy, literature and science, German and English all mixed up together, always on a shelf I could easily reach. Exploring these tomes made me excited about my future. They gave me a thrill in the privilege of learning that I didn’t always get at school. If doing well in school even when I was bored out of my mind meant going to college like my dad and reading books like these, I knew it was going to be worth it.
It’s hard to overstate just how much my parents’ reading habits influenced me. There was something magical about watching them tear through books at breakneck speed, seeing them add finished volumes to the office shelves. I knew that reading made them smarter. It let them answer all the hard questions on Jeopardy and fill in the blanks on the newspaper’s trivia decoder. It allowed them to display their intelligence at dinner party debates and family gatherings. When they wanted to know more about something, they reached for a book. That shaped me in so many different ways.
These days of course, it’s different. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a technophobe by any means, but e-books sometimes sadden me. So many of the kids I work with — both out in the world and as a babysitter in their homes — have never seen their parents crack open a physical book. Don’t get me wrong; I’m positive their parents read. Maybe they have a Kindle or an iPad, or one of those Samsung things. They stay informed through the New York Times app and iBooks and the electronic version of the Times best-seller list. If they don’t know the answer to a question, they hop on Google and find the answer: no books required. None of these things are inherently bad.
The thing is though, kids learn by example. When a 6-year-old sees their father tooling around on the iPad, their first though isn’t, ‘Oh, Daddy must be reading.’ It’s ‘Daddy’s playing video games? No fair!’ Tablets don’t provide the visual recognition books do. No child is making the connection that the thing they use for movie-watching and game-playing is used by their grown-ups for intellectual pursuits. Why would they? They know the purpose of a tablet, and it’s not for reading books. It stands to reason that if they’re not making that connection, they might not realize that their parents read at all.
E-books lack an emotional connection, too. There’s no inscribed flyleaf in an e-book. No carefully printed name and date. There’s no annotations or underlines, no dog-eared corners on favorite pages. You can’t see the spines that’ve taken the most wear, nor can you spot the pages spotted with marks from old tears. E-books are impersonal .They’re practical, sure. I won’t refute the ease of pulling out my iPad on public transit or shoving it into the seat-pocket in front of me on the airplane. Still, there’s something inexplicable that an e-book is just…missing.
When I see the kids I work with moan and groan and grumble about reading, I wonder. Do they know that reading can be joyous? Do they realize how much they can learn? Have they ever touched the well-cherished books of their parents’ childhood like I have mine? Do they know the thrill of being trusted with their mother’s copy of The Happy Birthday book, the one she herself was given when she was only 9? Have they thumbed through their father’s copy of Robinson Crusoe and found a shared belief in adventuring? Did they hug their grandpa’s copy of King Arthur and His Knights and feel like he was still with them long after he was gone?
These days, I read a lot of e-books. On the train, on the bus, even when I’m lying in bed and don’t feel like turning on the light. It’s not the same as a real book though. It can’t be. So every time I read something I love, I write the title down. I head to the used bookstore and, heedless of my shoestring budget, buy the first copy I can find. Then I give it the royal treatment: my name and the date, carefully inscribed on the musty flyleaf, just like my dad taught me without ever having to say it out loud.
Day 12: January 12, 2017