Monday, January 13, 2014

The Neverending Story


The public library, which is probably the largest structure in our little community, is about a four minute walk from us. We chose our rental with that distance in mind. We go several times per week, and at any given time, we've usually got both my card and my daughter's maxed out with library books (in the graphic above, see if you can determine the exactly two categories that are for me, and not my daughter. Hint: it's not Cats -- Drama).

Here at home, books authored by Bill Peet, Graeme Base, and Joanna Cole abound. Really, they're everywhere. They're the foundation of our home's obstacle course of clutter. But we're okay with that (at least until the stumbling midnight journey to the bathroom).

Although 'rithmatic is still a bit of a mystery, almost-four-year-old Addison is on the cusp of reading and writing. She's starting to do more than just look at the pictures in her books; she underlines those tiny black squiggly lines with her finger as she paraphrases stories to herself, and she's at the age of scrawling her name and creative approximations of her name all over the walls (don't tell our landlord).

We discipline her right quick after discovering her territorial markings (because you gotta be consistent, right?), but we haven't removed the offending graffiti, mainly because it's sweet at the same time that it's disobedient. This is my house, the markings say. This place is a part of me, and now I am a part of it. She wasn't sure that she wanted to live here at first, but clearly she's coming around. I like to think that having a cozy place to curl up and read a book helped win her over.

Watching Addison's blossoming bibliophilia inspired me to reminisce about my own relationship with reading growing up, and what follows is a nostalgic journey through my own past as a reader. Someday I think it might interest my daughter, too.

Our house was always overflowing with books. We had bookshelves everywhere. Books stacked on the stairs. Books piled at the front door. Books littering the floors of our car. People would trip on them, curse them, and then perhaps sit down and flip haphazardly through the pages. My parents read books to me and all my siblings growing up; but more than that, our house was just saturated in print material, and I’d have had to work really hard to not have a book within reach at all times.

Me, circa 1993, the life of the party

There were two kinds of books initially on my MUST! READ! THEM! ALL! list: anything space related and anything mythology related. Before I could even sound out the word “Universe,” the National Geographic Picture Atlas of our Universe was a frequent flier on my elementary school library account.

Dang, that’s an awesome cover.

And the mythology books — they set the tone for the rest of my life.

No, not this. This came later.

In college, I would dig into the significance of myth and legend, unearth and wrestle with the deep cultural significance of what Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey.” But at eight years old, all I really knew was that when Hercules held a creature’s neck in one hand and bashed its head with the other, something stirred in me. When Thor threw his hammer and the speed of its passage rent the air with a crack of thunder, I sensed that I, too, had heroic blood coursing through my veins, and the world held in store great monsters for me to vanquish.

These. Monsters are awesome.

My mom always hoped I’d get into biographies. She’d check out books about Andrew Jackson or Daniel Boone or Marie Curie, and slip them into my library check-out pile. And yeah, I read a few of those. And I pored over The Way Things Work, and I zipped through the Encyclopedia Brown series, and in my third grade classroom, the Boxcar Children was popular. I guess I was an above-average reader before I discovered the fantasy genre of children’s and young adult books. But once I dipped my toe into Lloyd Alexander, Edgar Eager, Roald Dahl — I was hooked. I went from reading just some of the time to reading nearly all of the time. I passed up playing with friends so I could finish a book; I gave up pool parties and sleep-overs and movie nights. I distinctly recall tears streaming down my face as Taran’s mentor and father-figure Coll dies next to him in battle, near the end of Alexander’s The High King. And then I cried again when I turned the last page of the book, and fully realized that this story was done.

Books can be so needy.

A sampling of the authors I devoured before the start of fifth grade, ’cause the nostalgia is fun: John Christopher (The White Mountains), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising), Lynn Reid Banks (The Indian in the Cupboard), Jane Yolen (Dragon’s Blood), Madeleine L’Engle (A Swiftly Turning Planet), Brian Jacques (Mossflower), Patricia A. McKillip (The Riddle-Master of Hed) and of course, anything by Bruce Coville (My Teacher is an Alien). I recall a few non-fantasy books that stood out; Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee really impressed me, for instance. But it wasn’t long before I was browsing the adult fantasy section for new material.

Before the end of sixth grade, I’d plowed through everything I could find by Robert Aspirin (Another Fine Myth), Terry Brooks (The Sword of Shannara), David Eddings (Pawn of Prophecy), Richard Adams (Watership Down), J. R. R. Tolkien (what did he write again?), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game). And I became a bit of a missionary for the sff cause. My sister agreed to read Ender’s Game if I read the ballet-themed Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden. Bold exploration for both of us, really.

Run away! Run away!

By the time I hit high school, I’d maxed out a lot of the science fiction and fantasy authors whose book covers looked interesting. So, grudgingly, I took a breather  and picked up some of the less awesome books that were always lying about our house. ‘Cause you’ve gotta read something while you eat your cereal in the morning. Only in retrospect do I really recognize how significantly these way-awesome “less awesome” books shaped me. I made my way through Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and then Cancer Ward; I’d eventually write a term paper on Solzhenitsyn. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Heller’s Catch-22. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Lewis’Arrowsmith.

I wasn’t particularly discerning as a reader up until high school. I gravitated to fantasy and science fiction, but mostly, if it was a book and had words in it, I’d pick it up and give it a shot. Lucky for me my parents had a lot of intelligent stuff around the house. I think I was in tenth grade, reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, when I realized for the very first time that what I was reading was really high-quality prose. Like, it wasn’t just entertaining or a good story. I was starting to discern artistry in literature. It was a big moment for me.

Going into eleventh grade, I was asked to be the Editor-in-Chief of our high school literary magazine. I began fancying myself a thinker; it became more likely that I’d have Whitman or Emerson under my arm than Robert Jordan or Mercedes Lackey.

Reading Thoreau while backpacking with high school friends

College was a bit of a jumble for me. I started my freshman year on a full-tuition scholarship for ROTC. I did EMT training at the same time, with the sort of strange thought that participation in one would atone for the other. While many of my fellow cadets were majoring in computer science or international affairs, I decided on philosophy and studio art. I fell hard for some of the rarified academic stuff that I encountered; stuff like Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and most anything by Roland Barthes. And once again, was asked to be the Editor-in-Chief and illustrator of the college literary magazine.

Ultimately overwhelmed by my varied responsibilities, and I dropped out of school for a few years. I comforted myself by reading the sff of my youth, watching a lot of movies, and dabbling in video production. When I returned back to school, I decided on a double major in English and media arts studies. Much as I loved studio art, it didn’t seem a viable career choice. My new wife prodded me all the way through to graduation. With a year left to go, my daughter was born. I’d push her in a stroller around the neighborhood reading critical studies of Moby-Dick, or to counter my constant fear of burn-out, novelizations of HALO and Doom.

I thought I might try to become a professor; I received funding for academic papers and was asked to submit to professional journals. But as much as I loved poring over obscure texts, I could. not. finish. papers. There was always more to read! With every new source I found, the endeavor expanded. I’m glad that I came to terms with my paper-writing anxieties before deciding to go to grad school. In the end, I identify with something Michel de Montaigne said: “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.” Although I loved the research, it wasn’t worth the pressure of trying to master it all.

Today, I exercise my writing muscles chronicling the ups and downs of being a stay-at-home dad. I still make “art,” if by art you mean stick-figure comics made in Microsoft Paint. And I’ve combined my critical English major eye with my love for science fiction and fantasy in my book review blog, English Major versus the World. I dream of writing novels, and in the meantime, during nap-time and at the gym, I read them. One of my primary goals for the future is to have a really, really kick-awesome library in my home, with bookshelves on every wall, and maybe ladders and a special stand for a really gargantuan dictionary. I’m told that children’s educational outcomes are highly correlated with the number of books in a home. Just having tons of them around appears to be enough to make a big difference. So, until we get those fancy full-wall bookshelves, my daughter’s going to spend a lot of time stubbing her toes on books.

A version of this post first appeared here.


  1. As a teacher I really appreciate your love of reading and what you are teaching your daughter. I believe part of the reason I love to read is because my Dad did so much of it while I was growing up. It is hard to get students excited about reading when they don't see it being done at home. Thank you for sharing this and your dedication to raising your daughter to be a bookworm.

    1. Thanks, Elsa. I was reading an old essay by Jonathan Franzen in which he cited a study that indicated one of the most important things that determines whether a kid grows up to read substantial literature is whether their parents have heavily modeled reading substantial literature. The parent doesn't actually have to read a lot of books to their kid, though that's nice. But if the parent himself reads a lot, that's a huge factor.

  2. Love this story. So many people forget that READING IS FUNDAMENTAL! When I was a kid, I literally tore through (I'm not bothering to the underlining or italicizing...forgive me!) Dauler's Book of Greek Myths. That's how many times I read it. Loved Dahl. Loved The Great Brain books. Sienna's still just 21 months, but she's beginning to love books. My friend just introduced us to Olivia. Excellent book! The one thing I didn't do as a kid is skip the movie nights because I was always fascinated by and analyzing the moving image (well, the analysis part came later). I still do my best to read at least 50 pages a night while balancing being a SAHD and trying to keep up w/ film and television so my media studies masters doesn't go to waste. And one day, maybe I'll get that novel and memoir done...RIF!

    1. Thanks for visiting, Lorne. I honestly believe that the single biggest thing that spurred me on in my academic career was an early emphasis on reading. My parents didn't force it on me, but I'd have had to have been a seriously contrary child not to have absorbed some of the lit love that pervaded our home.

  3. My Mother-in-law has a great story about reading to your kids. She was a fourth grade teacher and taught school for over 30 years before retiring. Parents would come in asking questions about their children and reading comprehension. She would then, in turn, ask them if they still read to their kids. Usually they said no. Then she would say that she read to her child, my hubs, until he was 13. And they would give her this look like oh, how sad that you had to read to him for that long. She would explain that he graduated valedictorian of his high school class. Then they understood. Just because your child has been taught to read doesn't mean you should stop reading to them. We've been reading to our kids since they were babies. My son just started kindergarten and within the first two months of school moved up two reading classes. He's improving his skills, even if he doesn't like the process of learning to read. I think once he figures it out and we find a series of books he can get in to he will be hiding from his sister just so he can read. I am looking forward to that day, maybe the house will be quieter. :)

    1. There's nothing quite like having my daughter climb into my lap for a story. If she's anything like me, though, once she's able to read by herself she'll do that voraciously to the exclusion of having dear old dad stumble his way through a narrative. My mom tried to keep reading to me, but by the time I was seven or eight, I'd have none of it.

  4. Yes. All of it. And didn't the "Our Universe" book have a section in the back theorizing what life would be like if there were life on other planets in our system? Like crystalline beings on Pluto? Back when Pluto was a planet? Also, when I read mythology, still, I get this ache somewhere between my head and my heart, like my own heroic blood is still waiting to be tapped. But via writing, not by literal monster pounding.

    1. YES! Hitting that part of "Our Universe" was like hitting the jackpot.

      And I've spent the better part of our marriage trying to win my wife over to the intellectual and emotional gravity and nuance to mythology and fantasy generally. It's been an uphill battle, but we're making progress.

  5. I love how you're downplaying your love of Cat Drama -- just own it, Neal.

    1. Ok, yes, I do love Cats -- Drama. But definitely lukewarm about Cats -- Comedy.

  6. I didn't like books when I was a kid. All I cared about was music music and more music. But not even fancy music. Punk rock and metal. But then in college, I had to read, to force myself, and I discovered that what I liked so much about punk rock music was the words and the growls and the structures. And my favorite books were all that. Like Kuhn's Structure....

    I'm saying this because you made me remember that I wonder how my son will be when he starting choosing books or what-have-you. We live in a world of books now -- stacks all over the place as you're saying, and that's after giving half of them away when we emigrated! He loves his books, that's for sure. I wonder whether I would have were I to have grown up with them.

    1. I had an English Theory professor who I really respected who explained that he hated reading until he was in college. And even today, as a English Professor, he doesn't like reading as much as people expect him to; what he likes is the puzzle of piecing arguments together and writing about them, and in order to get the perspectives to push against, he's got to find them in a book. I don't know what kind of upbringing he had or whether his parents encouraged literacy. But he delighted in telling that story just to make all of us lit-loving English Majors nervous.