Wednesday, April 27, 2011

`He'll Get Better Books Afterwards'

A shy, proud kindergartener told me she was reading one of the Harry Potter books and held it up, finger marking her place, to prove it. I knew her to be bright and enterprising but remained skeptical. “I want to read the whole thing and all the other ones,” she said. Her father is a teacher in our school and I asked him about it. “It’s true. I don’t know how much she understands but she’s sticking with it,” he said. My younger sons didn’t start reading the Rowling volumes until second grade, so I felt an ember of competitiveness beginning to glow. The Potter books are unreadable and the movies unwatchable, but I have Dr. Johnson as my chief literary adviser. In 1779, as Boswell reports, he said:

“`I am always for getting a boy [or girl, surely] forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal, when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.’”

As a boy and young man I felt constitutionally incapable of completing anything, though I made a bullheaded exception for books. If I started reading one, I had to finish it, regardless of how little I understood or enjoyed it. Like a cartoon goat, I consumed everything indiscriminately, even the literary counterparts to tin cans (James Baldwin, Donald Barthelme). But that also meant I read difficult texts – Ulysses, some of Beckett’s novels -- I’ve never stopped reading. As a gourmand, through application, can transform himself into a gourmet, so can a reader refine his tastes with practice. In A Life of James Boswell (2000), Peter Martin writes:

“[Boswell] confessed to Johnson, `I don’t talk much from books; but there is a very good reason for it. I have not read many books.’ Johnson was mildly disappointed to hear that: `I wish you had read more books. The foundation must be laid by reading. General principles must be had from books. But they must be brought to the test of real life.’”

1 comment:

Rohan Maitzen said...

As a child, I read many books well beyond my immediate comprehension because I lived with readers and aspired to be one, and nobody ever told me any book was not for me. I regret, now, (and try to resist) the mantra of the "just right book" that my children hear from their teachers: it discourages experimentation, ambition, and also failure, all of which seem to me essential parts of really reading. So what if you don't understand it right away: it's enough to want to understand it, to be curious enough to try it.