By David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
December 5, 2010
We have a rule in our house: My wife and I will always pony up for books. It's not even a subject of discussion — if either of our kids wants a book, we will buy it, no questions asked. This is equally true of the books we have at home, which are equally available to everyone, regardless of subject matter or degree of difficulty. Whatever else they are, after all, books are gifts (for the mind, the eye, the hand), which makes it downright uncharitable to deny them to anyone.
This, I should say, is how I was raised too, in a house full of books, by parents who put a premium on the written word. I was allowed to pick up everything — and often did. When I was in third grade, I checked out "War and Peace" from the school library (I was looking for the longest book in the world), and although I never actually opened it, I remain thrilled by the idea that no one told me not to try. The adults in my world — my parents, my teacher, the school librarian — knew that Tolstoy's novel was beyond me, but they also knew that literature is a landscape of possibility in which the most important gift we have to offer is that of openness. I still remember that big brown hardcover sitting on my desk, whispering its promise, just as I remember how it felt to be told yes. Here, we have what books and reading bestow: that affirmation, that port of entry, the glorious pleasure of seeing the world open, even if it's not always a world we understand.
I was reminded of this recently when I visited my daughter Sophie's sixth-grade class to talk about books. The students were vocal and enthusiastic, many of them devoted not just to reading but also to writing, which they use to get closer to the work they love. One kid said that when he finishes a book, he writes a story in which he talks directly to the characters; another mentioned that in her stories, she can create the kind of plot turns that are sometimes missing from what she's read. I loved hearing about this — both because it highlights critical thinking in action and because of what it says about the ways that we engage with what we read.
Sophie also relates to books like this. Not long ago, she made a shift from what she calls "girlie" books ("Paparazzi Princess," the works of Meg Cabot and Lauren Myracle) in favor of "The Hunger Games," which she had resisted until then. Why? "Those books got boring," she told me. "The stories were the same." Again, a bit of critical thinking, but even more important, a sense of flexibility. This, too, is a gift reading offers, the gift of knowing we can change our minds.
How do we encourage this kind of mental agility? How do we impress upon our kids the value of a fluid mind? For me, it starts with books, which are fluid by their nature, exposing us to stories, to ideas, to information we didn't previously know. They are also fun, as Sophie would be the first to tell you, engaging and interactive in the truest meaning of the words. This is why I will always buy a book, any book, for my children, and why my shelves will always be open to them. There is no greater gift, no better bridge between us, no other territory in which we enter the imagination of another and discover (miracle of miracles) ourselves.
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