STAND BACK EVERYONE! I’m going to try to add a link to my blog post. I don’t usually do this, and I want to make sure I don’t start a fire or pull a hammy or anything, so here goes. Ready?
Is everybody OK? Did it work? Are we all still here?
This Wednesday, 23 April 2014, is World Book Night. If you haven’t already hit the link I risked life and limb to provide you, it’s a night designed to celebrate and encourage reading. The idea is to get books into the hands of people who aren’t regular readers. A panel of book publishers and librarians come up with a list of titles, and special editions are printed up in which the publishers and authors forego their royalties. These books are then made available to volunteers (like me) who distribute 20 copies on World Book Night to individuals who aren’t regular readers.* The book I selected to give out, which should surprise you very little, is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, her account of growing up in Brooklyn at the time Jackie Robinson was propelling the Dodgers to their first World Series victory.
It’s not what I’d call the essential baseball history (oh, fear not, some future blog post will address that topic), but it’s enjoyable for a casual reader, and it does what the best baseball books do: it gives you a glimpse of America at a different time. Any time I read a book about baseball history, I usually end up learning something I didn’t know about this country’s past. For example, did you know that there was a time when trains going from north to south, when stopping in Washington DC, would unload all their passengers in order to re-board the train, segregated by race? I didn’t know that, until I read Beyond the Shadow of the Senators by Brad Snyder. This is one of the things Negro League teams took for granted.
Anyway, thinking about books, and thinking about The Knucklehead got me waxing nostalgic about reading with the kid. Reading, as much as movies and baseball, has always held a central spot in our lives.
Better and smarter people than me can offer advice on getting your knucklehead to love reading. (Oh, hell, I’m feeling cocky, let’s try for another link, shall we?: http://www.guysread.com/) What I found was to lead by example. Read to your kid every day. And let your kid see you reading every day.
How early should you start reading to your child? I don’t know. I first read to The Knucklehead when he was thirty minutes old. I pulled a journal out of my back pocket and read him a list of promises I’d written to him while he was still baking. We went from there. I figured that even if he had no clue what I was saying, he’d still come to associate books and reading with quiet, intimate snuggle time with Papa. I think that may have worked.
My mother was a reader. Out of us four kids, I, the last gasp, seemed to be the one that grabbed the bibliophile gene from her as I was being pushed out. I have a very clear memory of an evening when I was five years old, sitting on the back porch with my mother, she in her chair with her book, me in my chair with mine. Neither of us spoke to each other, but I felt a bond with her that evening as strong as at any other time, and I was certain, even then, that it was mutual. It was as if we were both linked through a shared, though parallel activity, that had less to do with a parent/child relationship than it did two people who were caught up by the same avocation. If I lose all other memories of my mother, it is that evening that I’d like to hold onto.
There’s a memory I have of an afternoon with The Knucklehead when he might have been exactly that age. At a bookstore, my habit is to roam the aisles, picking up books that look interesting. Once I have a stack, I’ll sit down and go through them, reading a few pages in each to decide which (if any) I’m going to purchase. If they have a coffeeshop, I’ll grab a table. Otherwise, I’ll find a piece of carpet out of the way and sit cross-legged on the floor as I go through my stack. One day Knucks and I stopped at a small bookstore together, and I wanted to look at some volumes in the adult section. “Hey,” I said, “I want to look through some grown-up books for a while. You OK to bop around the kids’ section while I’m doing that?” “Sure,” he said, and headed off to the children’s books. I browsed for about twenty minutes (I know better than to push my luck any longer than that with a five-year-old), and then I went to see what he had gotten himself into. What I found astonished me, and I’ll never forget it.
I found myself.
There was The Knucklehead, sitting on the floor in a corner of the children’s section with a little pile of about five books next to him, another on his lap. Without saying anything, I sat next to him, and started going through my pile. I don’t know how long we sat there, but I let him break the silence. “I like this one,” he said, holding up one of his finds. “I like this one,” I said, holding up one of mine. We smiled and headed to the register with our treasures. I do not remember which books we each picked. I’ll never forget that afternoon.
Every bedtime a book was read. When he was a wee one, he’d pick a picture book or two. As he got a little older, I’d read a chapter book, maybe ten pages at a time, getting through some classics over the course of a few weeks. That was the way we read The Hobbit. The Sword and the Stone. Summerland. Around the World in Eighty Days. Treasure Island. Wild Times (our last bedtime book together before he outgrew them).
As The Knucklehead has grown, I’ve had the delight of sharing my reading past with him, and watching every now and then as a particular author takes hold. Every Christmas and birthday, he’s always gotten books from me; not just books, but never a holiday passes without one. I’ve learned to be patient. I give him a book, write a note inside making my case for why I selected it, and then let him come to it (or not) on his own time. It’s best not to nag, and if you can resist that, you get the gift of seeing your kid picking up something you gave him maybe a year earlier that you’d both forgotten about. Some authors never seemed to make the cut. But when you see your kid reading the same Arthur C. Clarke, or Robert Ludlum, or Michael Crichton novel that grabbed you when you were catching fire as a reader yourself, you get back a piece of discovering a writer for the first time.
I never went to a soccer or baseball game, or a Tae Kwon Do practice without a book (later, my Kindle). It became our shared joke. “Did you see my catch or were your reading?” Knucks would ask me. “I saw your catch, but you’re lucky I did because this book is getting good!” I’d usually reply. And like that. These days, when he calls from school, he likes to ask what I’m reading. He also likes to tell me about what he’s reading, and is beginning to make recommendations to me, the way he’s been doing for movies and music lately. I didn’t see that coming when he was five years old, but it suits me just fine.
I’m not a good enough writer to wrap this all up neatly, but you get the idea. A lot of warm memories happen around books and reading in my life. If World Book Night helps me in a small way to pass that on to other people, I’m thrilled to give back. Happy World Book Night. Think of me on Wednesday, maybe you’ll get a book courtesy of The Gentleman Knucklehead. Happy reading.
*How we’re to screen for these people (“Do you like to read? No? Here, have a book!”) is seemingly left to our discretion.