A week before my son Gabriel’s second birthday, I surveyed my Amazon cart filled with carefully selected birthday books. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. Curious George Rides a Bike. Where’s Spot? Bear Wants More. And the last on the list: Walden. I grinned, satisfied after my weeks of deliberation, before clicking “purchase.”
I admit, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a tough read for a two-year-old. It’s a tough read at any age. I sweated through it in high school, college, and graduate school, underlining passages and scrawling questions in the margins. Yet my copy of Walden has survived every annual burst of bookshelf-purging. Thoreau’s writing has the power to speak to me across different phases of my life. Years from now, maybe my son will discover this quality in Thoreau, as well as in other writers. I hold this hope for him as I build his library, one year at a time, one book at a time.
Gabriel has always been drawn to books. At five weeks old, we would hold him and read his entire stack of baby board books. As soon as he could pick up his books, he practically threw them at my husband and me, demanding we read aloud. When we’d exhausted the books, any printed material within arm’s reach would do — the Boston Globe sports section, or The New Yorker. When Gabriel was five months old and chewing through books — literally — I began to think seriously about the importance of books in my family, and the role books would play in his life.
I wanted to cultivate a strong appreciation for books, perhaps as a defense against the disturbing decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries (even though I was contributing to this decline by buying his birthday books on Amazon). Or perhaps as a fortress against the disturbing national statistics of young male readers on the decline. So I decided, beginning with Gabriel’s first birthday, to build him a library of carefully selected titles. I would present it to him as a “starter library” for his bar mitzvah gift, and continue to add a book on each of his subsequent birthdays throughout high school and college. By age 22, he’d have a shelf of twenty-two handsome bindings, filled with stories and wisdom.
My parents, who had recently embarked on a de-cluttering rampage, exchanged gleeful looks when I announced my plan. “We have books!” my dad said. “Classics! A whole collection, going back to the Greeks. They come with their own bookshelf. Gabe would love them someday.”
Though I felt badly for the unwanted books, I declined. I want to use what I observe about his character each year as a glimpse of the man he may become. The selections will be personal, each book inscribed with a note about why it was chosen. The books, hardbound, of course, will be a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Ideally Gabriel’s library will reflect a balance of older and modern classics, male and female writers, and authors of various races and ethnicities and nationalities. The best selection will always answer this question: What book most speaks to the person my son is becoming?
For Gabriel’s first birthday, selecting the cornerstone book of his library was not terribly hard. He was still a baby — an open, unwritten book himself. I chose Great Expectations, thinking of my own great expectations for my son — who he will become, what he might achieve, and the role books will play in his life.
Selecting a book for his second birthday kept me up for many nights. My growing son seemed to be a different person from week to week. Was he an art-lover? Would he like essays by John Ruskin? Was he an adventuring type? What about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Was he a nature freak? Maybe poems by Robert Frost would eventually stir his soul?
I settled on Walden, thinking not only of its enduring power in my own life, but also of Thoreau’s virtues and values already discernible in my two-year-old son. The power of observation. My son was a watchful child, a scholar of life, thinking and assessing before entering situations. Self-reliance. He demonstrated a strong independent streak, a determination to do things on his own. Tenacity. My toddler boy could focus on a task or a goal for a longer period of time than his peers. An appreciation of nature: he was happiest when outside with dirt and a stick.
For me, the fun in this process — aside from taking some dedicated time each year to reflect on my son’s growth — is seeing if my guesses at personality traits prove correct. In these early years, with my son’s rudimentary grasp of language, the challenge I face is sifting through ordinary toddler behaviors – tantrums, fixations, moods and whims — in order to see which qualities are most likely to endure.
New personality traits and interests have emerged since Walden arrived, and in kaleidoscopic combinations. Weeks after his second birthday, Gabriel went on a four-month nature strike, protesting when I urged him outdoors, refusing to walk barefoot on grass or in sand. When I took him to the actual Walden Pond, he threw an actual fit; I even have a picture of him looking up at Thoreau’s statue, his face twisted in terror, on the verge of tears. As I hurried Gabriel away from Concord, I felt the first twinge of concern about my library-building project: was I really seeing my son for who he is? Or for whom I wanted him to be, through the lens of my favorite writers?
I resolved to be more mindful of that issue as I selected future books. Tempting as it is to seize on a new title as soon as I notice some new aspect of Gabriel’s personality, I need the luxury of an entire year to unfold, to see the growth and patterns.
At three, his fascination with robots and devices emerged. Images of space, rockets, planets and stars, also captivated him. Over the year, he became more social, more observant of communities and human interactions. This added year of hindsight revealed my three-year-old’s budding imagination. So when I saw a new edition of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction stories on the Everyman Library site, I knew I’d found my Year Three book. Dickens and Thoreau will ground my son in the past and offer timeless truths, while Bradbury’s tales will launch my son’s creative mind into the stratosphere. This brought satisfaction, though tangled with worry.
While I hope my son will come to appreciate his library, I fear it will be too weighted with my hopes. I sometimes picture my son years from now, lugging eighteen books to his college dorm room, or setting up twenty-two books in his first apartment. Will he turn to those stories and my inscriptions for comfort or wisdom? Or will the shelves sag under the weight of my own great expectations?
At the same time, this library-building endeavor so far has taught me one of the most important lessons of motherhood. We can have hopes for our children, but it’s their life to live. So I will mindfully select his birthday books year after year. I will search for words that reflect Gabriel’s developing self, words that offer insights into himself as he reads them at different ages and stages. I must accept that I can’t anticipate or control his reactions. The books are his. I can give books freely, and allow my son to formulate his own response. I can acknowledge my attendant hopes and expectations, but I can also release them.
I will build his library one book at a time, and — one book at a time — let it go.