This is a column about books, reading, and family. It is a column for anyone who loves to read, wants to read, imagines themselves a character in books they read, read as a child, reads to their children — or dreams of escaping their children to read. It is a column for anyone who has ever read a book and thought that someone in their family would love it. It is a column for anyone who has ever received a book from a family member and hated it.
This is a column born from some of the memorable opening lines of literature: Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”; Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”; Morrison’s “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children”; Salinger’s “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
This is a column about what we read, how we read, and who we are.
It is summer, and my family is reading.
Eva, my eight-year-old, has taken a break from horse books and is immersed in Noel Streatfeild, keeping the rest of us informed on the doings of the beleaguered performing siblings of Theater Shoes and Ballet Shoes. Mara, my newly-minted teen, is dipping in and out of her vast collections of trashy teen fiction and food writing, rereading at least partially in resistance to my suggestion that she attempt Jane Eyre. My husband is on an mystery kick; he visits the used bookstore every week to pick up a new Donna Leon or four, and now he has moved on to Steig Larsson.
On my bedside table sit former Literary Mama columnist Vicki Forman’s brilliant new memoir This Lovely Life, The Wedding (Dorothy West’s novel of 1950s Martha’s Vineyard and its African American elite), Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (Julia Strachey’s novel of the 1930s British elite), Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age (which begins with a wedding and could be termed a novel of the turn-of-the-century Brooklyn elite), The Bolter (the biography of an early-20th-century British socialite and her five divorces), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I tend toward the thematic binge.
Piles of books dot our home, offering further testimony to the omnipresence of our reading. We do have shelves: three bookcases of fiction in the living room and dining room, six cases of color-coded nonfiction in the study and playroom, two more filled with children’s books in the playroom, two in Mara’s room, one in Eva’s room, and a squat half case in the master bedroom which holds photo albums and random unread books.
But the piles tell you we are not just living with our books, but actually reading. There is one in each bathroom, one on the sun porch, one on the desk, another on the coffee table, three against the wall closest to my side of the bed, and one at the bottom of the stairs. What can only be called a heap tumbles down in the hallway between the girls’ bedroom doors: recently-read books which belong in some girl’s room, though I can no longer tell whose (Mara has handed down some of her books to Eva, but insists on holding onto others; Eva is allowed to enter Mara’s room if she wants to read one of her books, though she must do the reading elsewhere).
Like the heap, the piles hold books we are currently reading, or have just finished, or pulled out for a quick look, or recently received but haven’t gotten around to. Putting things away is a familial challenge.
Books come to our house from the library (each girl is allowed to take out six per visit), in the mail (my review copies), as gifts (Mara’s bat mitzvah brought as many food books as earrings), and via grandparents (Eva is the recent beneficiary of a complete set of Rebecca Rubin books: that’s the new American Girl doll, a Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side, for those who don’t keep track of such things; around here there was little interest in the doll, but much in the books).
The girls go through books like they do clothes, which is to say, in vast daily quantities: the day Eva received the Rebecca Rubin books, she sat on the couch and read five; Mara can easily dip into half a dozen books in a day, between reading at breakfast, over lunch, on the train, in the bath, and when there’s nothing else to do.
Reading is forbidden at dinner.
If reading is something we each do on our own, it is also a family activity. When we sit in the living room–Mara at one end of the couch deep in Ruth Reichl, Eva at the other end with a stack of Pony Pals, me in the middle with the New Yorker, Sam on the chair reading an Iain Pears mystery–we are reading together. Reading weaves itself into our familial interactions when my daughters try to get my attention while I am reading, or I remind them to bring a book for the subway, or yell at them to stop reading and come to dinner (the first time I told one of my children to stop reading, I was appalled and realized I had definitively crossed the adult-child divide).
Through our reading, we experience and understand ourselves, our family, and the world. When Eva holds my childhood copy of All-of-a-kind Family and asks me who gave it to me, how many times I read it, or which sister I liked best, she is creating her history: cultural, familial, and personal. When I suggest to Mara that she ask her social studies teacher if she can substitute Kabul Beauty School for A Thousand Splendid Suns as her Afghanistan reading project, she learns to assert herself and her needs (not read a book that will terrify her), and she learns that her mother will always have her back. When I read a travel book, I remember my days as a solo traveler and think about how I have changed, and how I haven’t.
This column will explore individual books and books in heaps. It will look at books through family, family through books, and the act of reading: in a family, with a family, against one’s family. It will explore old favorites and current bestsellers, kid books and grownup books, classics and trash (and the sometimes fine lines between). Though I have daughters who are old enough to read for themselves, I’ll be writing about boys and babies and their books too. And I hope you will keep reading.