Essays

Silently, Side by Side: Reading with My Son

By posted at 6:00 am on October 17, 2013 11

From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!

My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.

covercoverAs a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.

When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.

Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.

coverWhere to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.

The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”

“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.

The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”

I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:

“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”

Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”

This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?

coverThe novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.

As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.

coverNormally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”

coverWith our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.

Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.

covercoverBy now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting.  When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.

Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?





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11 Responses to “Silently, Side by Side: Reading with My Son”

  1. Devin Asaro
    at 10:33 am on October 17, 2013

    Beautiful essay, Philip. I still remember reading sci-fi novels with my dad when I was slightly too old (or thought I was). It was a gift that my father wanted to read with me, and it shaped the way I interpret and understand literature.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Scott
    at 12:38 pm on October 17, 2013

    I remember being that age and reading sci-fi paperbacks – mostly old paperbacks lying around our basement from my parents and older brothers. When I was about 12 or so, I stumbled onto Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – probably something about the cover or the title appealed to me, I suppose. I remember being astonished at how much deeper it seemed than the pulpier stuff I had read before. After that, I started talking to my father and oldest brother about books I should read.

    I still check in with my oldest brother and ask what he is reading. And I still pick up books randomly off the shelf.

  3. Claire
    at 3:22 pm on October 17, 2013

    Gorgeous. I was cast right back into the unadulterated, rich world of childhood reading (for me, mostly L.M. Montgomery and Brian Jacques), before the filters of business, adulthood, rush, and the need to cast a mental judgment on books we read, takes over. Great article.

  4. Stefan Zajic
    at 3:28 pm on October 17, 2013

    Thank you for such a lovely essay. As a new father, it makes me feel particularly inspired about the years of reading and talking about books with my son to come.

  5. LeAnne Howe
    at 3:29 pm on October 17, 2013

    So touching about growing a family of readers. Thank you Philip for writing.

  6. Philip Graham
    at 7:32 pm on October 17, 2013

    Thanks, everyone, for such kind comments about my essay.

    I’ve missed those years of reading to my children, but this Thanksgiving I’ll be reading to my grandson!

  7. Paul Peters
    at 7:47 pm on October 17, 2013

    My daughters won’t let me read anything good to them. All they want me to read are these Strawberry Shortcake books, or books about Barbie. When I try and read something a little more, um, advanced than that they get all nasty. Like, for example, I tried to read them the beginning of The Chocolate War, but they said it was boring. Then I tried to read them the beginning of Blume’s Forever, and they said that was boring too, so I have just given up. I have no idea how Foster Wallace’s dad got away with reading Moby-Dick to little Dave and Amy. My dream was to sit with my two beautiful daughters and read to them from Didion, or DeLillo, or maybe even some Pinget. But they have no interest. They just want more and more of Strawberry Shortcake’s adventures in Berry Bitty City, or they want to hear, again, about the time Barbie because a Pet Vet for the day and fed a pony. I can’t take it anymore. I was hoping that by the time they were teenagers they would grow out of this phase, but apparently they’re not going to.

  8. Pellerin
    at 10:07 pm on October 17, 2013

    What an inspiring article. Reading has always been a pleasurable quality acitivity you share with children. It only adds to the enjoyment of a wonderful book.

  9. Franne
    at 11:15 pm on October 17, 2013

    I read your essay after retuning from a day filled with the pleasures of witnessing my sister being honored for her contributions in the field of journalism.

    At dinner with friends, she spoke about early influences–including waiting for pages of the newspaper to drop from our father’s hands to the floor where we children could capture the pages and explore them ourselves.

    Your piece suggested that the deliberate sharing of the gifts of reading between generations is all the more sweet.

  10. Lance
    at 11:19 pm on October 20, 2013

    Over and over, my father read Walter Farley’s Man O’ War to me. It was a subject he was interested in and I made him read it over and over. I still have that copy of the novel and it means a lot to me. Now I read novels to my son that hopefully we can both enjoy, until he can choose what interests him like I did. Since he’s so young and doesn’t seem to pay much attention (he’s 18 months, but I’ve been readint to him since he was born), I don’t read children’s books to him yet. That way it makes it a lot more enjoyable for me too.

    Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples used to put him to sleep like a charm!

  11. Dawn
    at 7:40 pm on October 22, 2013

    After two daughters who gave up listening at about 10 when they could read faster silently than I could out loud, my son, now 11, reads his own books silently, and I still read aloud almost every night (typically a book or series that is just beyond his comfort zone–Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, etc.) I ask about once a year isn’t he tired of me yet, and luckily for me, he snuggles close and says, “No! I like to listen and relax.” Sometimes I get the bonus of an older teen daughter in the bed too. The day is around the corner I’m sure, but I’ll keep reading if he’ll listen.

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