I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, really. Although my mom had no problem saying no to new toys and clothes, she never once turned down a request for a new book. And most nights, after dinner, I could find both of my parents perched in comfortable chairs with books propped open.
One of my most vivid impressions from childhood is that intangible sense of longing that comes with ending a great book and realizing that, for now, that corner of reality must be closed and set aside because dinner is ready. And, in the cases of the very best books, the anticipation: how long until I can pick it back up and enter its world anew? My first tastes of those other worlds were in the wonderful rhymes of Dr Seuss; as I grew, I settled on the prairie with Laura Ingalls Wilder; shivered in the attic with Sara Crewe; went there and back again with Bilbo Baggins; and read everything I could get my hands on by Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Lowry, and Judy Blume.
In high school and college, I discovered what I thought of as Real Literature. During the cold Chicago winters, studying political philosophy, I stored up reading lists for the summer. And then in May, I’d head home to the California sunshine, where I would sit by the pool in the backyard assiduously making my way through Great Books: Till We Have Faces will forever smell like pool chlorine and jasmine to me. I toted Jane Austen to my coffee shop job to read in the slow hours, and the summer I interned in Washington, D.C., I spent every spare minute in our bare apartment on an air mattress, working my way through The Lord of the Rings, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Midnight’s Children, and the entire Harry Potter series (Goblet of Fire came out that summer; I read it twice). I can tell you much more today about the inhabitants of Middle Earth than I can about the nascent political philosophies of African churches – which I supposedly spent the summer studying.
Out of college, I began teaching humanities at Trinity School and had the great good fortune, over the next five years, to lead seminar discussions on Dante, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Dickens, and Flannery O’Connor. It was in that classroom, around a table with 16- to 18-year-old girls, that I discovered why I love fiction and to truly appreciate its craft and power. No longer simply a welcome adventure into the larger world of the imagination, novels, poetry and memoir became for me places of spiritual instruction. The time I spent immersed in the life of an anxious Russian murderer in St. Petersburg, or sitting in the barbershop in Port William, or raising boys in 14th century Norway, sent me back into my own life newly enchanted and alert. I received the great gift that fiction can give: by attending to the humble, the daily, and the mundane it somehow breaks them open to reveal the possibility and greatness within our very ordinary human lives.
My daughter arrived in 2006, and my son in 2010, and with them an ever-expanding collection of books. Board books like The Alphabet Room and Each Peach Pear Plum are still around, though for my little guy they are gradually giving way to Alfie stories, The Bravest Knight, and all things Tomie dePaola. My daughter’s bedside is stacked with Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Although she’s a precocious reader she still loves to snuggle up with me and a pile of picture books. And me? I still love to read widely: spy novels, history, literary fiction, a book about baseball, the New Yorker, and spiritual memoir are all piled up on my bedside table. I still take too many books with me on trips, because what could be worse than running out of things to read? And I hope, too, that my kids will remember their dad and mom perched, after dinner, with books propped open.