Culture of Life: The Reading Hour

We had television in our family while I was growing up, but we didn't have much of it. Mom and Dad were pretty strict about what got watched and what didn't: "Captain Kangaroo" and "Lost in Space" early on, but no Saturday morning cartoons; later, "All in the Family", "Mary Tyler Moore", and "Bob Newhart", but none of the other sitcoms, which Mom considered coarse and vulgar. Actually I should clarify that Mom set the TV schedule - Dad didn't watch television, period. And they never, ever used television as a "babysitter".

Instead of sitting in front of the television tube, the four of us (my parents, my sister, and I) would sit around taking turns reading aloud, usually a chapter at a time, from some book. Both my parents were literary people and had excellent taste in books. This ritual, which lasted throughout our school years, helped us to bond as a family (and believe me, we had plenty of problems, so we needed all the help we could get) and did wonders for my literacy and speaking skills. It is one of the main reasons I feel comfortable writing and (to a lesser extent) speaking.

The best writing reads well aloud; indeed, the best writing is meant to be read aloud. Even in modern times, novelists like Toni Morrison and Theodore Sturgeon have affirmed the value of live reading. I read silently a lot, but even then I am conscious of how a passage sounds when read out loud; sometimes I will read a paragraph or two to my empty living room just to enjoy the sound of it. Personally, I do not think it is possible to write well without an awareness of the sound of the spoken word.

The books we read:
Madeleine L'Engle - A Wrinkle In Time
(I was too young to catch the Kennedy-era references - "Camazotz", indeed! - but I took its warning against cold intellectualism to heart; and I never forgot Meg's words, "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!" In retrospect, I think there must have been a strong anti-Communist message.)

Lucy Boston - The Legend of Green Knowe (series)
(Even though I was too old, I had nightmares about the trees near our house.)

Susan Cooper - The Dark Is Rising (series)
(Another wonderful fantasy series drawing on the lore of ancient Britain.)

Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist
(I remember being troubled by the constant references to Fagin as "the Jew"; but it didn't lessen my admiration for Dickens as a writer. "A Christmas Carol" is still one of my favorite works of literature.)

Louis Slobodkin - The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree (series)
(Delightful stories of first contact in small-town America. Among my favorite lines: "General Store? Who is this General Store?" The bond between Eddie and his ET pal Marty - who, like Eddie, was always getting into trouble - was very warm.)

Louisa May Alcott - Little Women
(The relationship between the cross-gendered Jo and Laurie fascinated me.)

... I could add a lot more titles to the list if I thought about it, but those are just the ones that pop up for me now.

If I could make just one request of today's parents, it would be: Read with your kids. Don't just read to them, when they're at the storybook age (do that, certainly); but also get in the habit of sharing good books with them as they grow up. That is a gift they will keep for a lifetime.