Tuesday, June 06, 2017

`With Little Tutorial Assistance'

“I must stress two crucial facts. First, no one—neither a relative nor a teacher—ever encouraged my reading or intellectual pursuits. Second, my bookish hobbies (except for science fiction) needed to be hidden from my friends. I never confided my passion for art to anyone at school.”

My sons have visited public and university libraries in four states more often, and borrowed more books, than most American adults have across lifetimes. When he was three years old and we lived in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., my almost-seventeen-year-old would run ahead of me, through the library entrance and down the steps into the children’s room, where he proceeded to the corner where Eurotunnel (Gloucester Press, 1990)by Lionel Bender was shelved. He loved that book and worried that another patron might have borrowed it. I had never before seen anyone read a book jealously.

I have not directly “encouraged my [sons’] reading or intellectual pursuits.” Preaching generally has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather, my kids tagged along when I went to the library. Our house is filled with books. In a strange town, we visit the bookstore. When we travel, we pack books with the underwear and toothpaste. As Dana Gioia puts it in Lonely Impulse of Delight: One Reader’s Childhood,” books are “intimate companions.” Gioia’s story resembles mine but every reader’s experience is sui generis. His parents were not readers but through a fluke of family history his house was full of books. My parents read little but never discouraged us from reading. Two branch libraries were within easy walking distance. When I was old enough to ride the bus downtown, I made the rounds of bookstores (four of them, one of which I later worked for). Like Gioia, much of my early reading focused on biographies (still a favorite form) and science fiction (which I now detest), to which I added field guides. I associated books with information, which still fuels my imagination.

Kids are adepts at constructing private worlds. I guarded my reading from family and friends. Bringing up books invited incomprehension and sometimes derision. One’s reading life ought to be benignly self-centered, with a few exceptions. Gioia endorses the naturally autodidactic and hedonistic proclivities of ardent readers:

“By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure. Surely, this conviction developed from my own self-education in books, and in particular from exploring them with little tutorial assistance . . .”

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