Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Tale of...Books

For as far back as my memory goes, I’ve always been a passionate bibliophile. (Yeah, I went for the snooty word…so what?) My parents deserve the credit for starting me off right, by providing me with materials and reading to me at a very early age. I'm sure it was because of this that, later on, libraries and bookstores became some of my Happy Places. The towering shelves bursting with rows of tantalizing choices, the unmistakable rich smell of the millions of pages nestled there, and the thrilling opportunity to be allowed to pick up and examine whichever ones you want, in order to walk away with something pleasing. I swear, it NEVER gets old for me…

So, I did the same thing with my kids—sharing old favorites with them, discovering new ones, taking them to story hours as soon as they were old enough to sit still for it, and in the process introducing them to the dual wonderlands known as the Public Library…and Barnes and Noble. (Ha!) Hopefully this has instilled in them a deeply-rooted love of books…that is hearty enough to outlast the strain of their academic years. What I mean is that, with homework and studying and the sheer amount of required text that students must wade through, reading for pleasure becomes oxymoron

(I speak from personal experience, here--I went from devouring a novel-a-day during my elementary years…to never cracking the binding of a non-school-related  book from High School through Grad School. Soooo sad...but you'll be relieved to hear that once my academic demands were met, I was miraculously cured of the mysterious ailment I'm going to call...Reading Malaise...and it's all good now...)

Anyway, while the Middle School curriculum still demands that Riley formally log a certain amount of time reading a "for-fun book" (I believe it’s 20 minutes per night), Derek has definitely fallen into that murky zone of “The last thing I want to do with my free time is spend it sitting in a chair, deciphering words and sentences and…stuff”. Therefore, Riley will approach me and say, “Hey, Mom, I need a new book. Any suggestions?” 

And Derek…well, at least I am reassured that he peruses his latest copy of ESPN the Magazine cover to cover. I know this for a fact because you can quiz him on ANY stat, or request that he thoroughly analyze or compare randomly-selected players or teams, or ask him to break down current trends in the sporting world…and just sit back and listen to him expound upon one of these subjects for…well, let’s just say “don’t plan on going anywhere for a while”. (Trust me, he can probably continue far past the point that your curiosity’s been satisfied, and you’re quite frankly ready for him to wrap it up…)

Then, last year, he was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in his English class. Now, somehow I had managed to get this far in my life without having ever read this classic. (Side note: I wonder if it’s because I grew up decades ago, in a very rural…what you would definitely call “non-diverse”…community…and therefore the content was deemed inappropriate? If so, I consider it a tragic failing of the educational system to expose me to this work of literature. So there…) Anyway, as an adult, I had the power to decide that it was high time to remedy this oversight—so I read it along with him…and my goodness, was I ever glad I did. It proved to be a pretty profound experience...while also being a welcome departure from my “usual” type of novel.

About that…in the moments I can steal from my trying-to-keep-everyone-organized-and-running-smoothly…life…when I cozy up with a book to relax I tend to gravitate toward something in the urban fantasy genre. You know: faeries, magic, gods and mythology, angels and demons, and the like. Once in a while I’ll go on a reality binge—I spent a couple of months being amazed by people’s accounts of summiting Mt. Everest or hiking the Appalachian Trail, for example—but mostly…I’m in it to ESCAPE, y’all. But when Derek and I were chatting at the beginning of this term and he told me what he’d be reading throughout the year, I was inspired…to join him.

Okay...first he (unfortunately) had to suffer (literally) through The Scarlet Letter…so I gave myself permission to just SKIP that one. (Didn’t care for it the first time; don’t feel the burning desire to repeat the performance…and also, doing the Grown-Up Happy Dance because no one can make me! Yaaaayyy!) We did have a lot of amusing conversations about such topics as “how freakin’ depressed…and repressed…and judgmental…those Puritans were”. (Our “expert” conclusion: Man, they seriously needed to Lighten. The. Heck. UP!) Finally, that was over, and next, they’ll be moving on to the much more entertaining Mark Twain, with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He’ll be followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Now…I read all of these…EONS ago. In fact, I recall going through both a Twain phase and a Fitzgerald one, where I read a bunch of non-assigned stuff…just because I liked them. (I know: NERD. And what a huuuuuge surprise, yeah?) But this would be a great opportunity to review the works…and discuss them with my teenager, right? I certainly thought so…which led me to a marvelous shop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, chock full of used books. We’re talking floor-to-ceiling, here, folks—and as a super-special bonus: two friendly resident felines, available for petting while you browse. A little bit of Paradise on Earth, I tell ya.

Wandering the aisles in rapt delight, I had no difficulty locating Gatsby, but when it came to Twain, I had a momentary…brain lapse, if you will. I could not for the life of me remember which rascal Derek was meant to study: Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. It didn’t help that I knew he’d read one of them in 8th grade…I suppose I just didn’t file it away properly under “Derek’s Past Reading Lists”. (Just kidding—Heaven knows I have enough junk that I HAVE to keep track of, without trying to store nonsense like that…) So what’s the worst that could happen? Um…I could guess wrong, and have to return to the store for the other one. Pffftt, at four bucks each—and an extra trip to the cool book-emporium-palooza--I’m hardly going to complain. 

I haven’t actually delved into the upcoming 11th-grade novel yet, though; I’m waiting for the class to get on with it, so it will be fresh in my mind when Derek’s going through it as well. (Nope, no comments from the Peanut Gallery. Hey, I heard that!) In the meantime, Riley inquired the other day about where I’d put the stack of used books I’d bought. I replied that they were on my nightstand, and wondered why he wanted to know. “Oh, I finished my last book, and thought I’d try Huck Finn.” (Well…bless your little pea pickin’ heart, sweetie—you just go ahead and have at it.)

Of course, it’s early going, but his preliminary comment was something along the lines of, “The pages are LONG! It’s not an easy read…” After I wholeheartedly agreed with him, he added, in a tentative voice, “And…they use a word to describe black people…you know…the “n-word”. (He actually flinched when he said did I...) Oh, yes, honey, I do know. And if you’re feeling uncomfortable about it, and find it offensive, I’m with you 100%.

At the end of the day, THIS is why I’m so glad to read along with my kids. ( long as it’s, you know, interesting—if either of them gets stuck with James Joyce (shudder) or Tolstoy (ugh)…or basically any of those other Hawthorne-like American writers from the 1800s—Herman Melville, I’m talking about you…I'm O-U-T). Because—especially in light of recent events in our country, and the unsettled climate around us right now, it feels important to talk about things like where we’ve come from (the good AND the bad)...and where we think we should be headed, for a better future.

So, I can’t decide if someday the boys are going to look back on this and be incredibly grateful for their…dedicated…ly dorky?...mother—or still be shaking their heads and trying to figure out how they descended from such goofball. I have just two words for you, guys: Lifelong. Learner. That’s right, live it, love it, BE it. As for me, if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got some homework…er “light leisure reading” to do! 

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