Sometimes as I watch the procession of adults on their iPhones, now everywhere, even here in Santa Fe, at restaurants, cafes, stores, on sidewalks and hiking trails, I wonder if books have really passed into oblivion. Since I have no idea how many of the books I cherish are available on screens, I tend to suspect that the number is limited. Out-of-print books can still be found, at ridiculous prices, but how many will ever be adapted to the screen?
This evening I found reason for hope.
My almost eight-year-old grandson, himself the son of my son the writer, has grown beyond what appears in hindsight to have been a five-to-seven-year-old fascination with what I have come to call “the contrivance”—the thing that delivers information of all kinds on a screen. A year ago, he would become inaccessible, especially when we were driving somewhere, absorbed beyond distraction with some screen game. I admit I sometimes wished his parents would put up with the old restlessness, the “When are we going to get there?” rather than the almost drugged concentration on the screen.
Well, they were right.
They are both thoughtful people, and since they were in their thirties when their little boy was born, they had access to a wisdom I didn’t even know existed when I was in my twenties and had my three sons.
As my writer son, father of this apple of my eye grandson, just told me, “If you forbid it, it becomes forbidden truth.” By allowing a two-year absorption in the contrivance, meanwhile reading aloud every evening, these wise parents oversaw their son’s graduation to books.
This evening I read him a chapter from Roald Dahl’s amazing Matilda, the story of a four-year-old girl, neglected by her parents, who saves herself through discovering her town’s public library and beginning to read adult books.
First, through the advice of the librarian, she takes out Great Expectations. The librarian advises her to let the parts she doesn’t understand roll over her, like music—the lesson I learned when my father read Dickens out loud to me when I was “too young” to understand.
He never stopped to explain. I learned through absorbing the context. He planned to read me all the Dickens novels, but my adolescence arrived too soon. He only read me a few: Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers—confusing, although he found it hilarious—A Tale of Two Cities, and Bleak House with its terrifying sense of hovering evil, which I understood only by inference.
This is the caliber of the books that little Matilda reads, on the advice of the librarian or on her own initiative. Of course she doesn’t understand everything but it doesn’t matter. The great sweep of writing at its finest carries her along.
(And I even have to give that the only women writers on her list are Emily Bronte and Jane Austen.)
Thank God for Roald Dahl. Thank God for parents who read aloud to their children. In spite of all the signs to the contrary, we may not have lost books and readers—or the writers that grow out of this blessed combination.