Get your TMN Headlines Mondays–Saturdays.

Subscribe to get your TMN Headlines Mondays through Saturdays. Sign up for our daily dozen-plus links!


Read It Again, Dad

Good books are frequently credited with being worth reading twice. But when was the last time anyone had time for that?

You're a good man Charlie Brown (Musical), Ambassador Theater (1999), Christopher J. Frith, courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When I was a boy I liked to read and reread books, so often that I kept slash-mark counts inside my favorites. There were six slashes on the first page of Hostages of Hate: Hardy Boys Casefiles, Case 10, which dealt, prophetically and improbably, with a terrorist plot to kidnap Frank Hardy’s girlfriend. After seeing Empire of the Sun in the theater, I read J.G. Ballard’s namesake memoir four times over the next year.

It was only later, in college, that the scarcity of time and patience for the slow pace of a text deterred me from repeat visits. Today, I still love to read, but I’m no longer interested in rereading. Once I finish with a book, it goes on the shelf or under the bed, more or less for good.

I’m not entirely happy with this development: though I don’t feel it anymore, I know there was a strong reason I reread books, a passion I can no longer recall. It is a loss I have felt quite acutely over the last few years, as I started reading to my daughter before bed. Like most children, Talia loves to reread. She and I have pored through Bedtime Bunnies, Maisie Goes to Preschool, and the complete collection of Fancy Nancy, over and over again. I enjoy reading to her, and I enjoy seeing how much she loves dipping back into the same book. By why does she love it?

Talia is three years old, and she engages with the world like most children her age. Everything has a heightened immediacy. Socks, for example. Last week I made the mistake of suggesting she wear a blue pair to match her blue dress. “No, Daddy, no!” she screamed, flopping on her bed. My wife came in, I tagged out. More screaming. Five minutes later Talia came out of her room, wearing red.

It’s easy to get frustrated with her, but it’s also easy to see where she is coming from: What adults might dismiss as obsessive compulsive is just a child trying to impose order on a strange place, one that is only getting stranger the more she is able to comprehend it.

But even as she is learning to master her world, it’s clear that her world, as she sees it, is different from the world of us adults. In one sense, hers is full of limits—she doesn’t comprehend distance, or the sheer size of the globe. Last year we went to London, and until recently she didn’t understand why we couldn’t go back for an afternoon visit. Again, I sympathize: when I was her age, my family went to Vermont for summer vacations, and I was convinced we were traveling to another planet, so unable was I to grasp the vast continuum that is the Eastern Seaboard.

But if her world is more limited than ours in some ways, it’s much larger in others. We take it for granted that there is a thick, clear line between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Art frequently deals with undermining that line in some way—but it also relies on our understanding of where the line should be, in the first place. For small children like Talia, though, that line is blurry, and often simply not there.

There are no talking pigeons trying to drive a bus along Atlantic Avenue. Inside books, though, the rules apply selectively, if at all.

One day she and I were sitting on the couch, and she told me about how, on the day before, a horde of Elmos had chased her down the hallway and tickled her. There was also a dragon involved, somehow.

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “No. Maybe. It was fun.”

“Was it a dream?”

“Yes,” she said, matter of fact.

To her, I realized, the line between dream and waking life was a distinction without a fundamental difference. She has no problem grasping what a dream is, and that it is different from what happens when she is awake. It is just that for her, the distinction is not a categorical one, but conditional—in the same way that some things are inside and some are outside, but could easily swap places. Everything is potentially true, and nothing is completely fictional.

Imagine, then, what it is like for her to read a book. The characters, the stories, the settings—they’re not real in the sense that she and I are real, she knows that. But they have a foothold in our reality, too. When she sees a man dressed up as Elmo in Times Square, not only does she believe that he is actually Elmo, but she’s not all that surprised to see him. He is simply at the end of the spectrum of reality closest to her, for the moment; later that evening he will be in a Sesame Street video on YouTube, and still later in Elmo’s ABC Book, and it all makes sense to her. She’s like the couple in the video for A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” moving effortlessly between the reality of the page and the reality outside it.

No wonder she loves to read. She may still be learning about the world around her, but it must be clear already that it comes with limits: the laws of physics, the rules of the house. There are no talking pigeons trying to drive a bus along Atlantic Avenue. Inside books, though, the rules apply selectively, if at all—even though everything is completely comprehensible. What fun.

Still, watching Talia listen to me read has helped me understand why I once kept coming back to books, well into my teen years. It wasn’t the love for the beautiful prose (because, come on: Hardy Boys). It was a residual sense of wonder, left over long after I had accepted that the reality on the page and the reality beyond it are distinct. It is akin to the way an older child—and even some adults—still believe in magic, or Santa Claus. 

At some point in my early twenties, I stopped wondering. I accepted the flatness of the page and the iron cage it places around its characters. Not coincidentally, this is about the same time I stopped believing in God. There was no magic, no world beyond ours. I learned to appreciate the aesthetics of the written word—the well-wrought shape of a character, the finely crafted turn of phrase, the genius deployment of irony. But these things still leave me cold. Beautiful, yes, but like a painting in an art museum, not a living thing the way I imagine I used to find the contents of a book.

Talia is only three, but I can already see her emerging from her primordial state. A few days ago we sat down on the couch to read a few books. Just before I started, she stopped me. “I need Owl,” she said, looking for her favorite stuffed animal.

“Does Owl like stories?” I asked.

“That’s silly,” she said. “Owl is just pretend.”

Of course he is—Owl is basically a small blanket with a tiny strigine head attached to one corner. But how much longer will it be before she realizes that story books are pretend, too?

Reflecting on Talia’s mode of book-love reminds me of Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy, which he believed took a wrong turn way back when, with Plato—so far back that we’ve forgotten things were ever any other way. Until I began reading to Talia, I had forgotten that there was ever any other way to read: a better way, a more pure and passionate way. The sort of reading that might just get you to crack open a book a second time. 


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen