Books on Books, Part 4
Saturday, May 08, 2021
Here's one more post on Lucy Mangan's Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading before I move on to the next of the four books under discussion. The passage below appears earlier in the text, where Mangan writes about the books that turned her into a reader as a very young child. One of them was The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson (1968), the story of a young barn owl named Plop who wants to be a day bird:
"It was with The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark that I truly fell in love with the act of reading itself. I had adored being read to, enjoyed the stories, but the ability to take a book off a shelf, open it up and translate it into words and sounds and pictures in my head, to start that film rolling all by myself and keep it going as long as I pleased (or at least until the next meal, bedtime or other idiotically unavoidable marker of time's relentless passage in the real world was announced) -- well, that was happiness of a different order. When I was reading, the outside world fell away completely and required the application of physical force to break my concentration. Though my mother, as one for whom fiction could never assume any kind of reality, never believed me (any more than she would believe in the years to come that her children were hungry, thirsty or tired outside appointed hours) I never deliberately ignored her calls to come to lunch or dinner or to start cleaning my teeth and get ready for bed. Like every bookworm before or since, I simply and genuinely didn't hear them. Wherever I was with a book -- on the sofa, on my bed, on the loo, in the back seat of a car -- I was always utterly elsewhere.
"Adults tend to forget -- or perhaps never appreciated in the first place if lifelong non-readers themselves -- what a vital part of the process re-reading is for children. As adults, re-reading seems like backtracking at best, self-indulgence at worst. Free time is such a scarce resource that we feel we we should be using it only on new things.
"But for children, re-reading is absolutely necessary. The act of reading itself is still new. A lot of energy is still going into the (not so) simple decoding of words and the assimilation of meaning. Only then do you get to enjoy the plot -- to begin to get lost in the story. And only after you are familiar with the plot are you free to enjoy, mull over, break down and digest all the rest. The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It's like being able to ask a parent or teacher to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven't understood with the absolutely security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can't wear out a book's patience.
"And for a child there is so much information in a book, so much work to be done within and without. You can identify with the main or peripheral character (or parts of them all). You can enjoy the vicarious satisfaction of their adventures and rewards. You also have a role to play as interested onlooker, able to observe and evaluate participants' reactions to events and to each other with a greater detachment, and consequent clarity sometimes, than they can. You are learning about people, about relationships, about the variety of responses available to them and in many more situations and circumstances (and at a faster clip) than one single real life permits. Each book is a world entire. You're going to have to take more than one pass at it.
"What you loose in suspense and excitement on re-reading is counterbalanced by a greater depth of knowledge and an almost tangibly increasing mastery over the world. I was not frightened of the world like Plop. But now I knew that some people could be. This was useful. I could be more sympathetic to people who suffered from the same affliction in the real world, and I could also dimly and in a more complicated way understand why some people might find it difficult to understand fears I had that they did not share. The philosopher and and psychologist Riccardo Manzotti describes the process of reading and re-reading as creating both locks and the keys with which to open them; it shows you an area of life you didn't even know was there and, almost simultaneously, starts to give you the tools with which to decipher it.
" 'There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets,' C.S. Lewis once wrote. 'But what can you do with a man who says he "has read" them, meaning he has read them once and thinks that this settles the matter?' Exactly. The more you read, the more locks and keys you have. Re-reading keeps you oiled and working smoothly, the better to let you access yourself and others for the rest of you life.
"I don't mean to place too much of a burden on Plop's tiny feathered shoulders, but if we were able some day to trace back a person's development of kindness, toleration or compassion, or their willingness to entertain an alternate point of view, or lifestyle or decision -- how much of it all wouldn't come back to a myriad of such tiny moments as learning that others can be afraid of the dark? In 1932, the French scholar and admirable optimist Paul Hazard wrote a book called Les Livres, Les Enfants et Les Hommes in which he reckoned children would learn about each other through books and that eventually this would end conflict. So far at least it hasn't quite worked out like that, but the point he was making -- that as soon as you begin to read, you begin to cultivate empathy, if only at first in the very smallest of ways -- stands."
The art today (from top to bottom): Owl and Moon by Angela Harding, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark cover art by Paul Howard, owl illustrations by Maurice Sendak and Petra Brown, Martin Waddell's Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson, a printed page from Owl Babies, A Parliament of Owls by Eric Carle, Aesop's The Owl and the Birds illustrated by Arthur Rackham, a page from The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark illustrated by Paul Howard, Jane Yolen's Owl Moon illustrated by John Schoenherr, an owl and fox painting by Jackie Morris, Wise Old Owl and The Owl and the Pussycat by Chris Dunn, and The First Star Gleaming by Catherine Hyde.
Two related posts (in case you missed them): In praise of re-reading -- why it's valuable for adult readers too, and The stories we need -- on learning empathy (or, rather, how I learned empathy) from children's books.
The "Books on Books" series of posts will resume on Tuesday (after the usual Monday music post). Tilly and I wish you all a very good weekend.
Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.