The Kid: “A book?”
The Grandfather: “That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today, I’m gonna read it to you.”
- The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Two of my earliest memories revolve around reading. First, sitting on my dad’s lap and learning to read from the McGuffey’s Readers. Next, sitting on my parent’s bed while my father read The Horse and His Boy to my sister and me (we were about five and three). I have a picture of the three of us on the couch while he read Prince Caspian, but I remember the purple cover of The Horse and His Boy that day on the bed. I read and re-read that same set of The Chronicles of Narnia until the pages were falling out, but I still have them—along with a newer set that can be read safely.
It is almost impossible for me to think of the books that I truly love, the books that have made the most lasting impressions, without associating them with people and places and times of life. I can remember going to the library every week and checking out eight books (the maximum you could put on the check-out card). I remember my mom getting fed up with my Nancy Drew, Dana Girls and Hardy Boys habits and making me check out Pride and Prejudice. I was nine. I don’t know how much of the humor I truly understood, but I read it. Sometime later, I read it again and fell in love, but the two thoughts that pop into my head every time I think of that book? Colin Firth, of course; but then I think, who gives that book to a nine-year-old? My mom, that’s who, and I love Jane Austen, thank you very much.
Is reading dead? No, of course not. I read, you’re reading right now. So many of us still love to read. Are books dead? No, they aren’t, and they never will be. We can argue passionately about reading versus other forms of information and entertainment, print versus e-readers, Treasure Island versus The Hunger Games, but the fact that we bother to think, worry and argue shows that books — new and old — still matter. I could easily talk about Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment, or what I learned about word usage from Nero Wolfe, or the history I have learned through reading fiction, or make a case for the relationship between art and literature, or…you get the point. The whys of reading are many and they are important, but the one that interests me most is that we pass it on. I read because my parents read; I read because they bought me books; I read because my grandfather let me raid his shelves and carry away stacks of books — books that were his, my aunt and uncle’s, even books from a grandmother I never met. In giving me those books, he gave me ties both to people I’d never met and people I could only see occasionally.
In my mind, there is a very simple equation: books = love. When I give my niece and nephews books, I’m hoping they get a bit of imagination, of excitement, a piece of me. On our family vacation last summer, two four-year-olds and I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I don’t know how long they’ll remember the plot — although so far, so good — but I hope the memories of sitting on a bed together will last as long as my memories of my father, sister and me.
True statement: while I’ve been working on this, a book showed up in my mail. The Millionaire and the Bard — from my mom, just because she thought I’d like it.
Pass along your stories — the ones you tell and the ones you read. You will pass along so much more: facts, people and personalities, language, grammar and syntax, the love of a good plot. More importantly, you pass along a bit of yourself every time.
If you haven’t read or watched The Princess Bride, stop and make a note of it now, because you really should. William Goldman wrote both the book and the screenplay and they are fantastic. In the movie, there is a story-within-a-story. A young Fred Savage is home sick and his grandfather, played by Peter Falk, comes to read him a story. To make a great story really short, The Princess Bride is the story of Buttercup and her farm boy, Westley. Buttercup orders him around and he always complies with an “as you wish.” One day, “she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he really meant was, ‘I love you.’”
The Kid: “Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.”
The Grandfather: “As you wish….”