Dispatches | September 08, 2010

There are few things that can get me as excited about reading as the prospect of sharing a book that I loved as a kid with children. They don’t even have to be my children; a few years ago a friend’s daughter had recently learned to read and was very patient with me when I starting grilling her about which books she’d read and saying things like “ooh, you’re just going to love this one, I know it’s around here somewhere,” sending her home with what must have been a rather intimidating stack of reading material. As a fiction writer and recent graduate student, I sometimes feel like I’ve trained myself out of being able to read with the same level of total absorption, the same pure pleasure that was such an important part of my early life. Occasionally a book will still draw me in and the world around me will crumble, but that world is a lot more complicated now and it’s a rare book that can make it vanish. Helping someone else experience the kind of pleasure I derived from book as a child thrills me.

Now that my own daughters are eight and five, and their attention spans have moved well beyond Goodnight Moon, we can read together, which, it turns out, is even better than sending my books home with other people’s children. Recently, I was scanning the bookshelves in the living room, trying to decide what we should read next. Should it be Ramona the Pest or A Wrinkle in Time? The Egypt Game? Something – anything – by Roald Dahl? Part of me knows we’ll get to them all eventually, but it’s harder to choose the right now book than one might think. Then I found it. A book that, when I read it as a child, made me realize that there were things people could do. Things children could do, that no one ever talks about, like running away and having adventures in a grown up world without anything terrible happening.

First published in 1967, E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the story of Claudia Kincaid, and her younger brother Jamie, who run away from their suburban home and spend a week ducking guards, sleeping in enormous, antique beds and bathing in fountains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While they are there, Claudia and Jamie discover a mystery surrounding one of the museum’s latest acquisitions, a small angel statue that may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo. Their investigation eventually leads them to the slightly eccentric and elusive narrator of their story, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who sold the piece to the museum.

What I remember most about the book from my first read – probably more than twenty years ago – was the feeling of awe that Claudia inspired in me. At eleven years old she is a planner. She thinks through every detail of their escape, from packing their clothes in their musical instrument cases, to how they will hide during those dangerous early morning hours when the museum staff have arrived, but the museum is not yet open. Claudia had a plan for everything.

Okay, I admit it; I still think Claudia’s pretty cool, and her compulsion to correct her brother’s grammar even when it could get them in trouble makes me smile every time. But as I’ve read it chapter-by-chapter to my girls this past week, what I really noticed is the subtlety with which Konigsburg reveals the inner lives of her characters. Claudia leaves home because she feels underappreciated, but through the novel she develops a complex relationship with her brother and learns not only what she’s capable of doing but in some way she also learns how to be herself. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those children’s books with a terribly obvious lesson; I’ve never liked those. But I think that the reason it feels as fresh and remarkable now as it did when it won the Newbery Medal in 1968, is that learning how to be yourself is something that everyone has to figure out on their own, and it doesn’t get any easier.

Rereading this novel with my daughters is a way of not only sharing the books that I loved with them, but also of revisiting another kind of reading. There is a character in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler who has trained himself not to read. He explains that

It’s not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them intensely, until they disappear.

I’ve worked so long and so hard at becoming a “better” reader, a more critical reader, that it’s easy to forget why I started doing it in the first place. How can you achieve that intensity, that level of absorption in a book that makes everything else disappear, when you’re trying to pay attention to so many different things? Reading once-loved books with my daughters is my way of unlearning – just for half an hour before bedtime – all the other ways of reading and reclaim reading for the love of reading.