A friend and father of three recently asked me about books and parenting. I asked if he could remember his own reading habits early in life, and I told him about my own.
When I was elementary-school-young, I was an intractable “genre reader.” I liked science-fiction and fantasy only. Occasionally, I would pick up a biography, but don’t remember that I ever finished one. Although I found out years later that my parents didn’t quite approve of my narrow appetite, they appreciated and promoted reading above other activities – especially television (which hardly deserves the term “activity” ) – so they were careful not to discourage me.
In middle school, unsuspectingly following the sci-fi trail, I encountered The Martian Chronicles and my taste for fantasy was transformed. I should say it was educated. Post-Martian Chronicles, I began to expect something from an author I couldn’t then define. I anticipated a more holistic effect on my psyche. I would now say that I began to crave Literature and every good and beautiful thing this word implies.
Every young reader who encounters transcendence in a book takes one of two diverging paths: he must on some level become either a critic or a metaphysician. That is, he sits down to judge the books like a gourmet at a meal, or books are suddenly windows opened to greater Reality. This choice goes unnoticed for most readers (it did for me for years), but it is no less real and no less serious.
At age 14, not knowing how important these books would later be, I considered what to read next. I had loved the Narnia Chronicles, so from Bradbury it was a short step back to Lewis and his Space Trilogy.
I was a wise enough reader to see right through Lewis’ tactics. (Maybe Lewis made me a wise reader?) Here was cosmology and psychology disguised as fiction. Though I shouldn’t say “disguised,” because it makes Lewis sound sneaky. Here was cosmology – Christian cosmology, in fact – which is beyond Literature, being skillfully presented in a selected literary form.
I never recovered from my first glorious reading of Perelandra (I love that this word has the ring of both “paradise” and “peril” in it). Then, after a crash-landing-attempt to read That Hideous Strength, I decided I wanted my fiction to have facts. That is, I wanted to know how Lewis knew all those real-world details behind the lives of his other-world characters. History and Geography hadn’t interested me before this. Lewis wrote as if they mattered.
So I started reading the encyclopedia. There’d been a set of encyclopedias in our home since early on, but they were merely for “reference.” (Intuitively, children are suspicious of this word). The encyclopedia was my first journey into non-fiction. And, beautifully, the subjects in an encyclopedia are arranged according to the illogic of the alphabet, so that, unlike a textbook, no professional psychologist has determined what “should” be read next.
Catfish is next to Catharsis! Wow! What could be more brain-stretching and spontaneous?!
I took a volume of the encyclopedia to bed with me every night and read myself to sleep. Of course, sometimes, a subject in C would pique interest in a subject in Ma-Me and I would keep awake for hours wandering around the house. It wasn’t unusual for me to share the bed with five or six heavy tomes flopped around me like watchful guard dogs.
The encyclopedia phase lasted several years, and I have to mention at this point that I’m eternally grateful to have lived in the twilight (alas!) of print culture.
Lewis’ fiction led to his non-fiction, and woke in me a serious interest in Theology. I read Francis Schaeffer and Julian of Norwich – all the while still loving Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame. I read some popular Christian authors, but found that most of the “contemporary” authors didn’t have much to contribute to the Conversation. I intuitively sensed that the only real answer to contemporary questions was to abandon the contemporary and seek the timeless.
Since college, the genres to which I am drawn are unbounded. I asked a fellow book-lover whose recommendations always impressed me how she chose her next book. She said, “I follow the trail. I try to find out what my favorite authors were reading. I scan bibliographies and footnotes. I pray and wait. I ask the people I like what they’re reading.”
I’m not a parent. But as a long-time employee of a bookstore, I am often asked by parents for advice. I tell them to guide but not to thwart any reading interest. I tell them to keep out of the house any toy disguised as a book (shame on you, Scholastic Press!), and to have only good reading on hand at home. Parents don’t like to hear that their own television “activity” influences their children, but of course it’s true.
Read aloud to your kids. Discuss church services at home. Smart kids get bored with textbooks. Soon, they’ll start to want Literature, and they will become metaphysicians rather than mere critics.
Most of all: don’t throw out that old encyclopedia!