Fat Books & Thin Women


How We Read as Children, How We Read as Adults

For the past month – and especially for the past few days – I’ve been immersed in children’s books. I’m working on a project to build an English-language library at my school here in Macedonia, and over the weekend began numbering and organizing books by suggested grade level. This is a project that’s occasionally frustrating, because the subject matter often doesn’t fit well with the level I would recommend based purely on vocabulary, but more fun for the opportunities it’s provided me to revisit some of the books I read when I was growing up.

I think that I, like most people who spend their lives in books, feel a close connection to the books I read when I was young. But I don’t necessarily remember most of them so well; unlike a lot of people, I don’t have real fond memories of Eric Carle or Where the Wild Things Are. My memories are more of Nancy Drew, and the nights I would spend hiding under my covers with a flashlight to finish one of the Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super Mysteries. Or Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Enid Blyton, the Betsy-Tacy or Oz books.

Needless to say, I haven’t been able to help myself from rereading Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, or Beverly Cleary’s Runaway Ralph, or reading some books, like Andrew Clements’s The Janitor’s Boy, for the first time. (By the way, a great book – exactly what I want in a kid’s book, with well-drawn characters, clean but descriptive writing, and a solid lesson at end.) One thing that’s surprised me is just how funny some of these books are, like the indignant tone Ralph takes through much of Runaway Ralph, or how he always states things exactly as he sees them, or his abiding interest in peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. When the guard dog of Camp Happy Acres asks Ralph where he is going he says:

“Well…here, I guess […] I wanted to be near medium-sized children and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.”

Or near book’s end, when Ralph is facing a night outdoors at camp and is watching his friend Garf leave him:

I hope I’ll be there, thought Ralph, who knew that a night of peril lay ahead of him. A peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich would help to give him strength and courage.

Looking back at some of my ten-year-old self’s favorite books, I’ve started to see these books not just for what the texts themselves provide, but for the ways in which they may have impacted me. Not just those things, like my love of reading, that have a pretty clear line back to books like Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but for things like my sense of humor, which fits so well with the dry tone of Runaway Ralph that I feel like I drew it straight from Cleary’s writing.

I am not the sort of person who claims that books “form” me in any way, or that any books I’ve read since I hit my twelfth birthday have had a major impact on the course of my life. There are books I love, sure; I can’t imagine living without my copies of Ada or Lolita or One Hundred Years of Solitude available for rereading. But to declare a book I’m reading today, like Auster’s The New York Trilogy, as having the sort of impact on me as The BFG had seems, well… not exactly foolish or childish, but approaching it.

The way I read as a child and the way I read as an adult are clearly different. Much of the attraction of rereading books I first read as a ten-year-old lies in the dream of living, briefly, in a world in which anything is possible, where it seems not only plausible but likely that a spaceship might crash land in the middle of your school science project, or that a boy could be crushed flat by a bulletin board. I’m thinking about this in part because my floor is covered with children’s books (I don’t know how I am going to get to navigate them on my way to bed tonight), but also because of something mentioned in the review of My Sister’s Keeper over at Little Interpretations, the idea of learning, again, to read without cynicism.

I don’t think that the way I read as a 25-year-old is less valuable than the way I read as a child, or that I’m not able to enter as fully into a book as I was 15 years ago; but I do read differently now, and maybe more cynically, and more critically. This seems a normal progression to me, but I still hold that earlier type of reading up as a sort of zenith which I can now only dream of approaching. Is the reading we did as children more valuable than our current reading – because we were less cynical, because our personalities could still then be changed significantly by our reading selections and the way in which we were capable of immersing ourselves in them? Or are these types of reading simply different, neither better nor worse than the other?

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6 Comments

Wow, this is thought provoking. Changes in the way we read does seems to be a ‘normal progression’. As a young kid reading felt more about learning and pure undiluted imagination. I also remember being nowhere near as picky as I am now when it came to choosing books; at the library, I’d pick up the first 5 books that caught my eye and stick with them! Nowadays, it’s often a really difficult task for me. I think as well, with education and life experience we become more cynical and definitely more critical. I often feel as though studying English Literature at university has conditioned me into reading with an analytical eye which sometime ruins the whole experience for me… another reason why My Sister’s Keeper was enjoyable :)

I think they are different types of reading, but I definitely look to recapture some of that innocence I had as a young reader (here’s hoping!)

ps. Thank you for the mention :)

Comment by Little Interpretations

i think that studying english has made me a more analytical reader, too. i think this is almost always good, because there are a lot of books i wouldn’t have appreciated if i hadn’t read them carefully… but i also want to begin seeking out, more, those books that i can dive into and read just for the pleasure of it, the sorts of books that will keep me up late trying to finish.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

This is a wonderful post.

I think what makes the reading experience so different when we’re children is the possibility that these books could change the course of our lives or help form us. We are too young to recognize this possibility of course but I think we feel it somehow.

Reading as adults is a whole different ball game…life has taught us a few lessons, hammered us into firmer shapes and we are much less malleable than we were.

Gteat, great post.

Comment by Mayowa

i think you’re right. i kind of remember how, when i was younger, my career goals would change monthly based on what i was reading. i wanted to be a detective, or a “grizzly bear scientist” (i think this one lasted a year), or, god, i don’t know what else. this is a pretty simplistic example, but i like the way you put it.

now that i have been crushed by the realities of life, books don’t present me with something besides themselves; i read them for what i can find within the texts, not for what they might tell me about the possibilities of my own life.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

“Grizzly bear scientist” – HA! That’s the first time I ever heard of someone wanting to be that lol…

It just occurred to me that while books can’t shape us much once we’re adults they can give us understanding. I remember reading 1984 and realizing how so much of its themes reflect the raw mechanics of some of the phenomena in society (like the proper use and great capability of propaganda).

Comment by Mayowa

[…] for Elephants fits well with my recent obsessions with NaNoWriMo and the way our reading changes as adults. It’s a well-written and well-plotted book, with sentences that are well-crafted in a quiet […]

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