When Elijah was a few days old and his sleepy jaundiced state wore off, Joe went back to work and I faced the chasm of hours alone with a newborn, a species wholly unknown to me. “Um, what I am I supposed to you know, do, with him?” The list of things he could do seemed pitifully small compared to those he couldn’t.
“Read to him”, Joe suggested.
Oh okay. That I could handle. And so I did. Elijah loved books immediately and by three months I would place three books in front of him during tummy time, and he would slap the one he wanted to read. If Moo Baa La La La was one of the options, that was the likely choice. I was fascinated, as most parents are, by the number of times in which we could read a single picture book without any visible diminishing of joy. We have read together first thing upon waking, last thing before sleeping and often another session (or three) jammed in there somewhere, every single day of his six and a half years of life.
He is reading on his own now, and his teachers tell me how during “read-to-self”, he often breaks into laughter at what he is reading and how he loves to discuss what they have read as a group. But at home, he still prefers me to read to him, and it’s a tradition I will hold onto as long as I possibly can. The feel of his little body resting against mine as we pore over the pages together, his eyes widening as we reach a passage of particular interest or surprise. Reading was one of his first loves, like fans and yellow buses, but as the others have faded and fallen by the wayside, he continues to fall more deeply in love with reading.
I know firsthand the overwhelming, all-consuming love of books. I remember feigning fear of the dark in second grade so that I could leave the lights on in my closet and cozied up there, devouring The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles after my parents had kissed me goodnight. I still read voraciously; it remains part of my own bedtime routine. Most recently it was Gone Girl (I know, I know very late to the party, but I got there), before that it was The Interestings, The Signature of All Things, The Golem and the Jinni, Life after Life. I often space out the lit I am reading with short stories that can be consumed in one sitting or autobiographies or books on less juicy topics, like meditation, simply because I can put those down. I don’t have to find a few moments in between putting the water on to boil for pasta and sautéing the mushrooms to read JUST ONE MAYBE TWO pages. It’s dangerous to be a writer who loves reading the works of other more than creating her own writing, and so when I am trying to work, I avoid the books that I will know will consume my attention.
Not that it takes much.
In a pre-kids time so long ago that it seems less of a mental snapshot and more of a mental daguerrotype, I can picture my patient husband waiting for me at the end of the grocery store check-out line. (Yes! Back in the time when we would go to the grocery store together. It has happened roughly twice in the past six years.)
“Hmmm.” I respond, mired in the miasma of Hollywood gossip rags that proliferate at such a place and which I find absolutely addictive.
“Lovey,” I can hear him smiling so I look up and see that he has paid, the groceries are bagged, we’re ready to go.
I will read almost anything (exceptions: Great Expectations and Moby Dick. I feel like my life is passing me by before I have read even a page of Great Expectations, and despite my family’s ties to New Bedford, I can barely make it out on the water with Ishmael and crew without losing interest. I also really dislike most Arthur Miller and wouldn’t have read his plays if they hadn’t been forced upon me in high school English classes, but I digress).
My children have discerned that, birthdays and winter holidays aside, they have about an 8% chance of getting the toy or stuffed animal that they are requesting. If they ask for a book, the probability goes up to about 80%. We have a lot of books, just so many it’s crazy and I think about how during Ben Franklin’s lifetime, people often only owned ONE BOOK, if any at all. But there are just so many wonderful ones, especially children’s books, that the search is insatiable, limitless. And on top of reading my childhood favorites to them, there are literally decades of awesome kids’ books that we have to catch up on!
Elijah is displaying this same lust for the written word. Every sign in the subway, every storefront, the opening credits to a movie: they are all opportunities to read. I haven’t asked him what he loves so much about reading, but I imagine it is similar to what any of us who are hopelessly in love with the written (typed?) word would say: it’s transportive and reflective and wondrous and humorous and thought-provoking and you can do it in your pajamas!
A few months ago, in the midst of reading from one of his favorite new series, we came across the word “hobby”.
“What’s a hobby?” he asked.
“It’s an activity you like to do, like playing basketball or doing yoga or reading.”
His face lit up. “Reading! That’s definitely my hobby!”
I was so pleased, but not surprised to hear this, and got lost for a moment imagining all the books in his future and the different places he would read them and the feeling of relief and sadness and gratitude that he will feel after reading a particularly affecting book.
And then I saw him looking intently from the book to me and back again, his little finger pointing towards the page.
“Can you read please?”
And we’re off.