Long long ago when color TV was something our neighbors had…, hold on, or was it way back when I use to play marbles at recess and pretended I was Kirk or Spock from that new TV show all the kids were watching? Anyway, there was this event that occurred every couple of months at my grade school; and this amazing, wonderful, damn near birthday and almost Halloween level of anticipation and joy event was the day-our Scholastic-book-order-ARRIVED! You need to understand that by the time I was in third grade books had become things I wanted, coveted, and treasured. My joy was magnified even more if the stack of books to take home on my desk was the tallest one in class. I even recall having a friend who sat next to me and we’d compare the number of books we had or see who’s books stacked the highest. Yeah, yeah, yeah, boys always end up comparing the size of anything they possess with other boys; and apparently even literary book loving families aren’t exempt from this phenomenon.
I remain book obsessed to this day and a really good novel will still, almost inevitably, disrupt the regular flow of life, sleep, and folding laundry. I still fondly remember the first time I read The Lord of the Rings during the summer as a teen, and there were more than a couple of occasions I specifically recall deciding I really should put LOTR down after hearing my mom’s alarm going off at 5:30 in the morning. And just to be clear, I blame my mother for this book obsession thing, it’s all her fault, period. In fact my mother is one of the biggest book hounds I’ve ever met. She’s seventy seven and my best guesstimation is that for most of her adult life she’s read at least a book a week and often two and sometimes three. There was always a stack of books waiting to go back to the library, another to be taken back to the office book exchange, and another stack heading back to the used book store. Mom loves novels, especially historically accurate period fiction and well written biographies, as well as an occasional nonfiction history tome. Good characters and well-crafted story lines matter to her and she made damn sure books would matter to her kids as well. I don’t have any specific memories of my mother reading out loud to me, but I do very specifically recall that she made sure good books were around our house, in our rooms, sometimes under our beds, as well as in our hands.
My fourth grade teacher spent part of everyday reading a book out loud to our class. I now suspect she read books she didn’t think we were likely to read on our own or books she hoped we’d read again later. It was half way through fourth grade when my parents split up and I learned that we would be moving from a small town on the coast of Washington to the big city of Spokane in a few months. Around the same time my teacher, who’s name I really wish I could remember, started reading A Wrinkle In Time aloud to her class. The main protagonist in Wrinkle is a plucky bright and awkward teenage girl by the name of Meg, whose mother is a scientist who often worked from home, as well as a quirky and intelligent younger brother by the name of Charles Wallace, with a pair of incidental twins thrown in for window dressing. The tension producing problem that needs solving by the last chapter involves the search and rescue mission to find Meg’s missing government scientist father. The rescue was no small task because a massive world controlling mind was holding the father prisoner in a different dimension; and the only assistance is being provided by some bumbling geriatric time & space traveling witches. I’m fairly sure that having this book read to me was the first time I was able to fully immerse myself in the characters and circumstance of a novel. And what was going to happen to Meg really mattered to me, and that she might get her father and life back with the help of her younger brother made the whole story all the more compelling and absorbing given my circumstance.
I didn’t forget A Wrinkle in Time after my fourth grade teacher finished her post lunch reading; in fact I think I read it at least three more times over the next thirty years. When it came time for me to short list the essential books I planned on reading aloud to my children A Wrinkle in Time was chiseled in stone for when they were in fourth grade. A few years after reading Wrinkle to my kids something happened to this grownup that took him straight back to his fourth grade classroom self. A good friend named Lucy happened to be a very close friend of the author of A Winkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle. And Lucy and Madeleine had been talking and Lucy asked her to leave New York and come out west for a visit with an offer to set up a public lecture and Q&A session in support of a local literacy program. When I heard about this event I immediately tried to get tickets only to learn that it had sold out in one day. Well crap, to say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. I then decided pride was an easily accessible currency that I didn’t mind spending so I called Lucy to see if she needed any help with the event in hopes of a freebie, or at least an opportunity to see if she had any tickets available. Lucy sadly informed me that all the tickets were gone and she didn’t need any help, aaaand that they’d received a call from the school where they rented the space telling them to not overfill the venue or the fire marshal would be all over them. Lucy called me the next morning and asked me what we were doing the day after the lecture, and could she ask me an enormously huge favor. Sure, anything at all, I told Lucy. She then told me that she and Madeleine would be busy all that day and she was really hoping that my wife and I could come over for dinner in the evening, and could she request, and would I please-please-please cook dinner for them as well. The only thought going through my head at that moment was how to say yes without fan boy blurting out, “oh my god YES”!! Lucy knows that I love to cook and I went over the top for Madeleine. The dinner was a treat, and the conversation was all that I hoped for. And when it came time to tell Madeleine why Wrinkle meant so much to me she smiled, politely listened, and said how happy she was when hearing about how her books really have an impact on young people. Meeting and spending the evening with the person who gave the young me such a treasure in a story, and within characters I cared about, was more than I could have ever hoped for sitting in my fourth grade class room listening to Mrs. Whatsit, or was it Mrs. Who. I really do wish I could remember my fourth grade teachers name.
My wife and I have tried our level best to pass on a love of books to both of our children. And while it’s been too many years since I read a book out loud to either of my kids; I do enjoy the happy emails and text messages when they notice I’ve download a book from their wish list onto their Kindle. I’m fully convinced that books, stories, and the written word in general are a way we can, at least to a degree, live in someone else’s skin and world. Books can help us teach our children empathy, what other people care about, and how others experience life; as well as informing us about issues and concerns we would otherwise be totally ignorant of. And not to forget the entertainment value!! The last book I read out loud to my daughter was The Hobbit when she was in middle school. We really enjoyed watching the first movie together, and she will soon watch the second installment in Germany; and I anticipate some FB messages back and forth about how we thought the story was told and how true to the book it was. I will treasure books of all kinds the rest of my life, and the way it looks now both of my children will be in the same boat, adventure, country, interstellar spaceship, time line, or perhaps a different dimension altogether.
(All pictures are the property of the author)