At the library, tummy flat on the bright patchwork carpet, my seven month old son mouthed a board book called Baby Faces. When I could manage to get it away from him — when he moved the book away from his mouth to get a new purchase on it — I demonstrated a page turning. See, you turn the page, and another baby face appears. And you turn the next page, and another one, and so on. The book, now drooly at the corner, revealed babies of diverse races and moods, each described by a caption: Happy. Sad. Worried. Angry. Hungry. Dirty. Clean. Fast asleep.
As I turned each page, I noticed his expression change. It seemed to surprise him that something so apparently compact and two-dimensional could open up into newness, page after page. As he looked and smiled and touched and mouthed, I found myself revisiting the joy of reading, the sheer pleasure implicit in a book: its efficient design, its generous and continual self-giving. Nothing else so consistently delights and enthralls; nothing inedible so consistently offers such satisfying nourishment. If I could, I’d eat the things myself.
Libraries, in particular, foster my ravenous appetite. Last night, for example, I dashed out after the kids were in bed, in search of a quote from one of Wendell Berry’s essays. The library was closing in ten minutes; I had to get in and out fast. But the Berry essays were nestled in among so many other voluptuously outfitted bindings — The Best American Essays of the Century, co-edited by Joyce Carol Oates, The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, Teaching Stories: An Anthology on the Power of Learning and Literature, edited by Robert Coles. Faced with so many tantalizing titles, I feel the same way as a breastfeeding mother standing before a plate of steaming nachos or a half-gallon of espresso chip ice cream. If only spatulas were acceptable as utensils in polite society. If only I could devour each of these books whole, one delicious volume at a time.
Like most writers, I’ve always loved to read. Go, Dog, Go! was an early favorite, as was my generation’s enduring classic, Where the Wild Things Are. I lived vicariously through Max, steeled with iron-clad guts, who faced down monsters with huge heads and gnashing teeth, and commanded them to do his bidding. As a shy, mostly compliant kid, I was slack-jawed at his rebelliousness. Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was another: Mickey tumbles from his bed into an eerie dream world in which doughy baker-androids try to bake him into a cake. The strangeness of that alternate reality thrilled me: a kitchen on the streets of a city, where enormous men bake breakfast cakes (who, after all, really got to eat cake for breakfast?), and where children can knead bread dough into airplanes and bathe in gigantic bottles of milk. Those early books — the good ones — were, and are, not only satisfying works of art, but powerful mind-shapers. The magic that pervades so many children’s books carries over into their daily reality. If Mickey could fly over a city in a plane made of bread dough, if Max’s room could transform into a jungle, if dogs could hold a party on top of a tree, then why couldn’t I do any outlandish thing that I might imagine, like build a spaceship out of wood and take it to visit my cousins?
It seems almost cruel to fill the minds of children with such tempting magical fantasies, particularly when they’re too young to know much about physics. It’s like a taunt: what’s the matter, little Jimmy Zangwow? Why can’t you just fly up to the moon in your jalopy and get some mooncakes for yourself? Books are undoubtedly where my five year old gets most of her impossible ideas: like her design of a tubular machine that would, by blasts of water, propel cats from her house to the houses of her best friends. But the many hundreds of books she’s read fuel her constantly burning imagination, and I wouldn’t put out that fire for all the libraries in the world. Who cares if her magical ideas tend to lose something in the execution? (The paper tubes she rolled and taped together for her cat machine did not exactly reach next door, and then there was the gnarly matter of devising a way to properly slope the tubes so the cats and the water would flow away from the house with enough force . . . you see the difficulty.) Reality is constantly imposing its limits, clicking its handcuffs closed on our dreams; it’s the imagination — and only the imagination — that can magically slip those locks.
Magical reading sustained me throughout elementary school. I have such affection for those books — Half Magic, Tuck Everlasting, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Magic Elizabeth, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — just writing their names calls up that delicious self-abandonment that was regular for me as a kid, that fabulous feeling of getting lost in a book. I’d read for hours lying on my bed, shifting my position from propped on pillows to prone to hanging upside down with my legs on the wall, the blood rushing behind my eyes. When I finished a book I loved, I’d sit upright, bleary, hungry, and half at odds with myself. It’d take me a few minutes to remember who I was, where I lived, what my parents expected me to do next with my time. This was my how I felt after reading Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia — the first book that made me cry. My mother, a dancer, would occasionally bring me along to her dance classes, and I would lie on the floor of arts center’s stage, eating a snack, reading, and periodically glancing up to watch the dancers execute their plies and porte bras. Bridge to Terebithia ends with a tragic accident that came at me like a blow to the stomach. I waited out the rest of the class, dazed and sniffling, while the dancers jetted across the floor. For the rest of the day I felt fundamentally changed.
It’s rare that I read that way now. Mostly I don’t have the time. I read in short spurts, either while I’m nursing my son or just before I fall asleep, my eyes closing involuntarily. I can’t remember the last book I read that hit me like a sucker-punch. I can list books I’ve recently loved or at least enjoyed (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Scott Russell Sanders’ Writing from the Center), books that have taught me something (Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction), books that have dazzled me (Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead) — all these books have changed me in some small way. I have a short list of books that I will remain grateful to my whole life, because they made it possible for me to become a writer: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway; Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones; The Writer on Her Work, a collection of essays about process by women writers, edited by Janet Sternburg; Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and any and all of Andre Dubus’s stories and essays. But a book I’ve read in adulthood that’s knocked me out like Bridge to Terebithia did twenty-plus years ago? Maybe one’ll come to me by the time I finish this essay.
Of course, most experiences affect us more deeply when we’re children, largely because they’re our firsts. I can name not only the first book that made me cry, but the book that prompted me to ask my mother for my first bra (Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?), the book that introduced me to sex (Forever. . ., by Judy Blume), the book that taught me it was OK not to know something because I could always learn (Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy), the book that made me wish — romantically and misguidedly — that I had been born into urban poverty (Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the book that spurred my first metaphysical questions (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach), the book that made me vow never ever to do any drugs, period (a vow that lasted a good three or four years — Go Ask Alice), the first book I felt I could legitimately call my favorite (Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the book that got me in trouble for reading it rather than looking after the intimidating four year old campers I was supposed to be supervising (Jane Eyre). These were all firsts, and therefore memorable. However, the list of affecting books is not only shorter, but also less memorable as I grow older. I remember being enthralled by Anna Karenina, which I read when I was 19, though I am embarrassed to say I could not recite much of the plot to you now beyond the affair between Anna and Vronsky, some scenes with scythes and peasants, and Anna’s infamous suicide. What I remember more about that book was how it saved me from the salacious evangelism of a Hare Krishna who sat next to me on the Greyhound to New York City — I leaned my head against the window, deflecting his questions with the book, which I held in front of my face. I read Beloved at that time as well, and loved it, but did it change my life? Maybe in a writerly way — made my style more lyrical, perhaps — but I’d be hard pressed to say exactly how. I could list my most affecting literary influences: it would include (in addition to the ones already mentioned), Howard’s End, Pride and Prejudice, The House on Mango Street, Ragtime, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Song of Solomon, Lolita, and all of Shakespeare’s plays. I could provide a long recitation of authors I admire: Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Pattiann Rogers, Yeats, James McPherson, Aleksandar Hemon, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Edwidge Danticat, E. Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and on and on. But somehow the books that have dazzled or entranced me as an adult don’t have the same gut-level, emotional draw as the ones that opened my eyes to new experiences when I was a kid. I read differently now. I’m pickier: a book has to be just right to invite me in. A clumsy metaphor, a hackneyed phrase, an overindulgent sense of drama, and I’m counting ahead pages until I can, in all fairness, quit. How I’d like, for once, to be able to drop my baggage at the cover and step, naked and bright-eyed, into the world of a book.
I am lucky now, all grown up, to not only get what books I like (I snapped up that copy of The Writing Life and read half of it before bed), but to beget books, too. I would never have anticipated executing this sort of midwifery when I was a book-hungry kid, in thrall to those magical fantasies. Writers were alien beings to me, exotic heroes and heroines, ensconced in esoteric knowledge and endowed with brilliance who lived like the Greek gods on their own Mt. Olympus, located somewhere in New York City or possibly London. I was a commoner, paying homage to their greatness by reading.
My daughter, as the child of a writer, lives in a different reality. Books are joys, but their creation is not mysterious to her. She writes them herself; at least one a day. Every day when she comes home from school, she pulls a stack of paper from her desk drawer, asks me to staple it at the side, and immediately dives into the studied depiction of her fantasies. Some of her titles: Cat’s Adventure, Floppy the Penguin Who Could Not Fly, The Little Kitten in the Big Orchard, Elmer Baby Boy, The Frog in the Forest, and The Very Very Bad Bad Bad Don’t Family Don’t Book. Her books are funny, sad, uplifting, serious, and magical. Cats roll each other into snowballs and push each other down, puppy dogs put out fires, and children await the births of their baby brothers. Narrators instruct their readers not to scold babies, knock heads, fart in front of anyone, or pollute the earth. Some she never finishes; others she works on concertedly, filling the white space until she reaches the last page. She knows, intuitively, the writer’s secret I had to teach myself: to keep producing, day after day, and to be unafraid of failure.
And now, joy of joys, my daughter reads. She does it with flair, too, dramatically acting out dialogue, stopping now and then at a difficult word. When she finishes, she looks up, beaming with pride, awaiting my exclamation of delight. At five, she’s beyond chewing their corners, but she’s mouthing books in a more advanced way, feeling the words on her tongue — the ells and esses up against each other, the tee aitches caressing her teeth. She’s tasting their ideas, swallowing and digesting their stories. She’s getting books now, on a deeper level than my son (whose day will come) — what a multiplicity they represent, what beauty and joy and understanding and peace they offer, and also what violence and what unutterable sadness. Already, books are a crucial part of her becoming; already, they are rearranging her reality, word by word.