In Lorrie Moore’s short story “Charades,” the central character Therese recalls a conversation with her brother Andrew:
Last year, at least, they had joked about their upbringing. “I scarcely remember Dad reading to us,” she’d said.
“Sure he read to us,” said Andrew. “You don’t remember him reading to us? You don’t remember him reading to us silently from the Wall Street Journal?”
I thought about this passage this morning, after reading an article in the Times on, well, reading. The attention-getting headline: “Pediatric Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children From Birth.” I can’t believe it, I thought. I forgot to read to my daughter!
It’s not a joke. My younger daughter is seven months old, and I’ve spent a lot of time with her since she arrived in November. But we haven’t been reading. (Okay, the royal we has been reading, silently, while my daughter sits in her frog swing.) What’s the matter with me? I read to my three-year-old daughter all the time: three short books before bedtime, then a few pages from a longer book (so far: Mary Poppins, the two Alice books, and The House at Pooh Corner). But my younger daughter has been watching me read The Nation and The Onion and Tigers game recaps. Which now strikes me as crazy.
So this morning, as an experiment, I read aloud to my younger daughter the things I would normally have read to myself. Our first piece: Ben Brantley’s review of The Old Woman, a fantastic sounding “two-man vaudeville extravaganza whipped up by that smiling surrealist Robert Wilson” and starring Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. My daughter beamed at me from my lap as I informed her (via Brantley) “that what makes us laugh hardest is what scares us. That includes death, of course, and the sense that we’re alone in a nonsensical universe where everything, animate and inanimate, is out to get us.”
A useful lesson!
Plus, this: I loved the way the review’s words knocked about in my mouth. When I told my daughter of the “genuine joy, and sorrow, and terror” that Brantley found in the production, I was also noting the alliteration at the start of the line, the rhythmic doubling at the end. And who knows, maybe my daughter is somewhat wired to respond to such patterns. Though I’ve rarely read to her, I have recited poems: bouncy rhyme-y stanzas—by Lewis Carroll, by Theodore Roethke—that she seems to like.
After the Brantley review, we read aloud a few “Science Times” pieces and a Chrissie Hynde interview and then called it a morning. The interview ends with Hynde reflecting on her own (and everyone else’s) mortality:
Interviewer: We have very well practiced rituals for when rock musicians die before their time, but not for when they live out full careers.
Hynde: Well, we’re going to find out. But if you’re going to be sad about the inevitable, then what does that tell you about yourself? How can you be sad about something that you already knew? Of course we’re sad to lose the ones we love, but why are we disputing what has to be?
Interviewer: That’s a good way to look at it.
Hynde: As long as it’s not me.
I’m not 100% sure that this is the sort of thing the American Academy of Pediatrics, in announcing its new policy, had in mind. But the morning experiment has reminded me of something I knew as a young child in the ’70s: “Reading Is Fundamental.” How could I have forgotten?