Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Childhood Reading

In a wonderful series in The New Yorker (6/6/16), authors meditate upon what, and why, they read as children. 

  • Poet Kevin Young moved to a less challenging school in fifth grade. Rather than skip a grade, he was relegated to back-of-the-classroom independent reading, which "meant going through old issues of Reader's Digest." Yet no reading is wasted.  "[L]ike the Sears catalogue, Reader's Digest did contain a whole world in its thin pages, often despite itself."     "[I]n a weird way, the condensing of words, and worlds, in those digests proved instructive for a poet. So, too, all that independent reading; it was in school that I learned how to be an autodidact." 

  • Rivka Galchen compares her daughter's reading experience with her own, more limited childhood reading choices. Galchen experiences her daughter's books as "mock-epic, [but] she sees language poetry. She doesn’t read for what happens next, I think, even as she has taken on her preschool teacher’s lilting 'What’s going to happen?' before turning a page. What happens next is often just another random animal at the zoo. Some of the books have plots, but she reads them more like eternal landscapes. In that sense, nothing is happening, and she reads for that nothing, I think."

  • Galchen herself was raised with few books, and so read Celestial Seasoning tea boxes, cookie tins, Ed McMahon mailings. "It’s mostly a clatter of carbohydrates and junk mail, but all those words were so haunted—remain so haunted—by a sense of well-being, meaning, and light. My heart still lifts when I see language that recalls the covers of my mother’s textbooks: Basic basic, Fortran."

  • Tessa Hadley compares her reading of The Secret Garden, as child and then adult.  "My doubting, critical self seems smaller, moving around inside the novel's spaces, than the believing child who was here first." Although the novel now seems didactic and sentimental, "I'm not sorry that I grew up on this rich fruitcake diet of feeling and moralizing. There are worse things. This is one the miracles that fiction works: you can be a doubter and a believer in the same moment, in the same sentence."

  • Hisham Matar proves that even a read-aloud fragment can permanently alter a child's mind.   "It is strange to me, now that I am in my mid-forties, after a lifetime of passionate affairs with books -- some, I later realized, undeserving of my youthful fervor, a few that I encountered at the wrong moment, and plenty of others that still light up rooms inside me -- in two tremendous languages, Arabic and English, that the book that has affected me most is one I came across when I was ten or eleven years old and about which I know almost nothing. I haven't read it. And, notwithstanding the many attempts I have made to find it, I have failed to learn so much as its title or the name of its author."

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