O dear father,
It is thy business that I go about.
— King Lear, Act 4, scene 4
I DECIDED I WOULD read to the first graders from Roald Dahl.
I began with The Witches (1983), the same book my first-grade teacher had read to my class years ago, and also a book I’d read aloud to my children several times at home. One class into the reading, it failed. “Explain to the children about ‘genre,’” my son’s teacher had told me, “fiction and nonfiction — what isn’t true versus what is.” Putting aside my literature-professor thoughts on this topic, I had defined the story as fictional, only to encounter, at the very outset, these lines: “In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.”
Despite reading the story at home, I had forgotten it began that way.
Real witches dress in ordinary clothes. […] [T]hey live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. […] [F]or all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now. Or she might be the woman with the bright eyes who sat opposite you on the bus this morning. […] She might even — and this will make you jump — she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment.
I jumped a bit myself; it feels very different to read those words aloud, to a class of listening students, than it does to read them to yourself, or even to your children, at home. “Let’s take a vote,” I said at the end of chapter one. “Show of hands: too scary and stop, or not too scary and keep going?” A solid majority wanted to pause.
To be clear, I wasn’t their teacher, so Dahl’s accusation somewhat missed the mark. I was a school parent who had volunteered for this weekly activity in lieu of registering for the PTA, organizing a holiday party, leading classroom sessions on character building, or — God forbid — chaperoning 24 children on a field trip through Los Angeles. I had suggested this activity to make myself feel like a good parent, to deploy one of my few translatable professional skills, and, on some semi-conscious level, to offset the possibility that I had, through my recent divorce, irreparably traumatized my son.
That I’d envisioned my reception differently was no doubt colored by my own memories of being read to as a child. According to essayist Adam Gopnik, children’s books have to please two audiences at the same time: the child, who uses stories to escape childhood, and the adult, who uses children’s books to recapture it. In the childhood I remembered, there were the hours spent with the books I paged through, but even more, there were the hours spent with the books I heard. More specifically, there was my English professor father, who taught me to revere the act of reading aloud not as a domestic duty, or as a ritual for only the very young, but as a deeply felt display. Love, and be silent — I’d worshipped him as a result.
Such memories pushed me to try my hand with the first graders again, this time with Matilda (1988), one of Dahl’s last published children’s books. Now we all got on swimmingly, reading a couple of chapters every week. I read to them, then, about corporal punishment — a cabinet in the school studded with glass shards called the “Chokey,” in which bad children were forced to stand. I read to them about the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, the professional hammer thrower turned headmistress, who keeps in training by launching disobedient children over her head. I read to them about verbal abuse and emotional neglect: parents who didn’t love their children, who ignored them in favor of the “telly” or bingo, or at best called them nitwits, idiots, and scabs. I read to them about Bruce Bogtrotter, the greedy upper-former who steals a sweet from Miss Trunchbull’s tea, and who is force-fed as a result, before the assembled student body, an entire, enormous chocolate cake.
The thing is, most of Dahl’s stories are pretty dark, particularly by today’s standards, and the darkness is usually exactly what appeals. “The prevalent parental belief,” writes child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, “is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most. […] [W]e want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be.” For Bettelheim, this fact underscores why fairy tales are so valuable to children, as they, in their darkness, put words to the existential dilemmas that grip us all. Despite his disavowal of fairy tales, Dahl’s stories have something of this quality, too. Traumatized by his own time in the British boarding school system, Dahl empowers the young, the small, the overlooked. His tiny protagonists find magic beans, golden tickets, giant peaches. They are also abused, starved, orphaned, and permitted to act out their revenge.
Significantly, many of the students started taking “notes” in their journals as they read: pictures from the reading, which often replicated the violent scenes we’d just shared. “That’s the Chokey,” I remember an otherwise quiet girl named Illaria saying to me, calmly identifying the cabinet of student-torture. “And that’s Miss Trunchbull throwing Amanda Thripp” — a stick figure in pigtails sailed across the page.
The early difference, I reflected, between Matilda and The Witches was Dahl’s opening “truth claim,” an assertion made even more unsettling by the moment when Dahl announces that he knows you are being read to aloud. I’ve always liked those moments in Tom Jones or Jane Eyre when the narrator calls out to the reader directly. In those cases, however, the relationship feels private, insular: a secret shared between reader and book. Dahl, by contrast, manipulates the communal relationship he creates. “Look carefully at that teacher,” he orders the listening child. “Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion [that she is a witch]. Don’t let that put you off. It could be part of her cleverness.” And I was smiling as I read those lines — he was right.
The truth claim in and of itself might not be a deterrent — after all, children want both to expand and to find the limits of their belief. But my own childhood experiences listening to stories told me that I had been lulled by the unspoken presence of the adult. Stories fulfill the same role played at a dinner party by a baby or the family dog: they mediate how we engage with others, so that the pressure to see and acknowledge, or to be seen and acknowledged, can be channeled through a book. Dahl disrupts this. He doesn’t just remind listeners that the adult reader might be bad; he reminds them first and foremost that the adult reader is there. He reminds me, too, of my own potential influence over listeners, a relationship that in my nostalgia or enjoyment or absorption I am tempted to forget.
To forget that others are present, or to erase others from your mind — is this what happens when we read aloud? Stanley Cavell has an essay on King Lear in which he argues that the play is about “the avoidance of love.” What Lear wants, Cavell suggests, is faux-love, and so Cordelia cannot repeat the scripts of Goneril and Regan because, were she to say those words of love, they would be true. Similarly, it is only in his meeting with Gloucester that Lear can bear recognition, and this is only because Gloucester at this moment is blind.
Reading books to others can also blind us to those we love; acts of bonding are, if mediated, also complicated by books. I read a scene once about killing a unicorn. It begins like this: “We have not seen our Mammy for one week. […] [S]he has forgotten us. […] [I]f we could do a unicorn hunt, and bring this unicorn which she requires, perhaps […] she will be pleased.”
The boys planning this quest are future knights of the round table — Gareth, Gawaine, Gaheris, and Agravaine, sons to the queen-witch Morgause — and the scene occurs midway through T. H. White’s retelling of the King Arthur story, his novel The Once and Future King (1958).
I read the book for the first time when I was a child, trapped between the same worlds of fantasy and reality as the boy-knights of whom I read. Unlike those of the boys, however, my childhood was rarefied in a way I could realize only in retrospect. “‘This girl,’” says Agravaine of the kitchen maid they lure to pose as bait, “‘is my mother. […] And I am going to be Sir Grummore.’ […] They had abstracted real boar-spears from the armoury, so they were properly armed.” The killing that follows has none of the comedy of Dahl or the nonchalance of fairy tale; the violence marks a departure from childhood and not a fantasy of it.
My tipping point to adulthood, by contrast, was treating as real — as the subject for serious analysis, or the foundation for a career — the artistic merit of the books I consumed. And yet, even for the boys, the true tragedy is not the brutality they enact, but the fact that their loss of innocence will be for naught. They hope for maternal approval; they fear, or perhaps desire, their mother’s ire. Instead, at the end of their butchered quest, Queen Morgause “did not notice her four sons […] dirty, excited, their breasts beating with hope. […] Queen Morgause did not see the unicorn. Her mind was busy with other things.”
The passage isn’t overtly about readings or readers; it has none of the self-address of Dahl. On the contrary, it is a scene about adult absorption, and about children being ignored. And yet it mirrored a sensation that I felt as a child, when I turned to books to forget the world. Lonely children are also often avid readers, substituting the fantasy world of story for the real-world attachments they cannot attain. I used reading to avoid household chores and homework, but also to avoid the types of avoidance I’d otherwise have to confront: the kids who didn’t want to play with me, the parental distraction that can shatter a child’s solipsistic world. I read to shut out others, and so that my absorption would preempt the sensation of being alone.
When I reread White’s book as an adult, this scene put words to my existential dread about being forgotten, passed over in favor of a book.
Reading to first graders wasn’t the first time I’d read aloud. When I began graduate school, I was paid to read to an emeritus professor who was recovering from a stroke. The circumstances leading up to the employment were comic, elitist, bleak: the nurses had called the family to say that their physically incapacitated yet heretofore still lucid patient was beginning to suffer from confusion, possibly dementia; the symptoms included him muttering in tongues. A family visit verified instead that he was quoting from the Metamorphoses, in Latin, and that he was deeply, even despairingly, bored.
He wanted to be read to, or maybe the family came up with this idea on their own. Either way, a few of my classmates were interested, but the family chose me, perhaps in no little part because I was energetic, enthusiastic, and blonde. I seem to remember he had requested a woman, though how or why this preference would have been publicized now seems unclear. I do know my own enthusiasm for the opportunity bordered on the hyperbolic, and that I’d approached the request for volunteers as a contest to be won. Which of all the students in our department could say they loved books most? With “a love that makes breath poor, and speech unable; beyond all manner of so much”? Surely I did.
I read, once I was appointed to the post, two evenings a week, at the same time of night each time I came. I read sitting beside a hospital bed, and I brought my own books. I also brought to the readings — and we read mostly poetry, again and again — all the naïveté that, in our graduate coursework, we were required to suppress. I read the poems and poets I’d grown up with, and that I liked to read: Frost, Keats, Ransom, Shelley, Coleridge, Stevens, Eliot, Bishop, Yeats, Auden, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash. I read them to him, and he said them back at me: “Arcady,” the professor told me, scans with “ecstasy”; “fillet,” when referring to a headband for the hair, is not pronounced as if it were a piece of fish; “progress,” in the context of Prufrock, must be said with a long “o.”
My visits took on a formulaic sameness, with occasional variation. Sometimes the nurses or aides stayed to listen. I remember one in particular, who stayed for many visits in a row. He was also the aide I found, the time I arrived early, changing the professor as one would change a child, the unaccommodated man laid out before me, bare and fork’d. On another visit, I found the professor on the phone, raging at a family member. “I’ve been a beast,” he explained, when I later re-entered the room. One time I never arrived at all, after a snowstorm, an icy road, and a message left at the nurses’ station that never got delivered. “One must have a mind of winter,” I thought, when I heard the professor’s voice that night on my answering machine. Odd how storm winds figure in both Stevens and Lear.
What can reading offer to combat such storms? This time, I had no prior experience reading aloud. Instead, I brought to my new “job” all my years of being read to by a father who’d once been a professor in this same department and who, I think, had known the man to whom I now read. For years, I’d listened to my father read the books I now studied, and about which I aspired to write. For years, I’d sensed how artistic passion vies with a more personal love: how writers and readers can lose themselves so completely in a book. And yet, for years I’d loved books and, through them, him; and for years I’d struggled, as we all do with our parents, to heave my heart into my mouth.
Reading to the professor seemed — for myself and the man in the hospital bed — to put words to the experiences we couldn’t otherwise parse out. But if we both had our portion as Cordelia, the professor was more obviously Lear. All we have left to us when we have come full circle is our infantile temper and strength of will. Lear begins the play by choosing to relinquish everything he has had throughout his life: he’s the aging parent who voluntarily gives up the right to drive, the toddler who willingly gives away his favorite toy. Strange that no one sees the courage in this act. If afterward he should ask for flattery, and the trappings of adulthood that he himself has rendered hollow, he’s asking for that which can barely compensate for his own presumptive leap of faith. In our final moments, we need those around us to remind us of who we were. Look, there: if I read to the professor by his bedside, the way one does to a sleepy child, I was also the disciple who sat at his feet. When he died, I sat in the back of the church, the stony dignitaries from my university gathered around. I remember being one of the very few people to cry. He had been, after all, so important, and so old.
I know that, with my own children, I am often beyond their reach. Sometimes I’m preoccupied with a work email, a shopping list, my phone. But there are also times I tune them out by stealing a few minutes to read my novel, or to work on a paragraph in a piece of writing I can’t forget. This phenomenon goes back as far as novels themselves. Anti-novel sentiment in the 18th century was often motivated by anecdotes about fiction’s disruptive social effects: scullery maids who stopped cleaning in order to read, aristocratic mistresses setting a bad example for servants by “losing hours” to a book. Other complaints, however, hit the more primal chord of maternal neglect: “I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread,” states one reviewer, horrified that the experiences of an imaginary person would take precedence over the real-world needs of the woman’s own kids.
Can this effect be in play even when my children are ostensibly the audience to whom I read? Quite possibly, if we consider that the most frequent reason for adults to read to children is to get them to fall asleep. The critic Maria Tatar presents the bedtime story as the end result of a cultural progression “from the fireside to the nursery,” in which communal nighttime rituals around the hearth — rituals in which adults and children commingled in broad kinship units — were replaced by separate night-time rooms and rituals for children. As these routines became increasingly individuated, late-night communal storytelling shifted to storytelling with a very specific, soporific goal. An adult reader focused on a hopefully sleepy child-listener, one often too young yet to read alone. A “successful” reading meant the reader would supplant (or supplement) the strategies — from threats, to whippings, to warm milk, to opium-laced drops — that parents used, and perhaps to some extent still use, to get their children to stay in bed.
In the bedtime tradition that Tatar narrates, the practice of reading aloud seems to sever bonds, not forge them: the goal of reading seems to be to subdue the child, not engage him or her. Yet a child lulled by reading can equally demonstrate confidence in the adult attachment and an assurance — hopefully reinforced through the sharing of a story — that the adult will be there when the child awakes. To witness such comfort brings reassurance to the parent, too. “Dear Babe,” writes Coleridge in his “conversation” poem to his infant son Hartley, “that sleepest cradled by my side,”
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee …
Coleridge “reads” his poem, as it were, to the sleeping Hartley, an act of communion made possible because Hartley cannot respond.
Despite the beatific image of Hartley presented here, however, not all children acquiesce. I myself had been a more difficult bedtime child. My parents recall me, even as an infant, being nocturnal and demanding, alert and hungry from the moment I awoke. When I was older, old enough for stories though perhaps not for the precise stories that I was read, my father, channeling Tatar, had sought to soothe these tendencies with books. Sometimes I would drift off a few pages in; sometimes, by contrast, I would stay awake, either captivated by the story, or anxious about the departure that I knew would accompany the story’s end, or both. And I wonder, too, if on some level I always felt that the books could pull my dad away. I remember him reading to me from the tales of Paul Bunyan — the episode about the white snowball Paul brings back during the winter of the blue snow — and getting excited about “synecdoche” and pausing to mark the passage and make notes. I found that moment years later, cited in the introduction to his Coleridge book.
It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I could feel, from the other perspective, what my resistance to comfort must have felt like to my dad, or could fully know how I have used books to disappear. As someone who regularly sneaks into her children’s bedroom late at night, I know how quickly we can oscillate between a desire for detachment and outpourings of love. I know, too, how feelings of attachment intensify when our children are unresponsive, vulnerable, or incapable of making reciprocal demands. As a single mom, I also feel a certain amount of cynicism toward Coleridge’s peaceful scene — the fact that he presents as communal bonding a private moment that he likely did little to perpetuate or commandeer. It’s easy to have warm, poetic thoughts about your child at midnight, when that child is sleeping and can’t contradict you. How different the acts of parent-child bonding that occur at 11:00 p.m. on a weeknight when your child is fretful, at 5:00 p.m. on a school night before soccer practice, or at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday when the school bell rings at 8:15.
Reflecting on these times of parent-child chaos, however, also helps me understand the unique balance between cathexis and independence that reading together can provide: it gives my children and me a compromise between a love predicated on their unconsciousness, and the entropy produced by three independent wills. In our moments of most successful reading, it’s as if we were standing side-by-side, admiring some great work of art — each with our own impressions, each absorbed completely by what we see, and yet conscious, at the same time, of sharing this experience, and sustained by the reactions we reveal. It makes me think, too, that this was the experience I shared with my dad.
The worlds of adulthood and childhood can otherwise seem so far apart. In everyday life, so much of what separates parent from child takes the form of competing interests, and therefore competing demands: the child who can’t understand the parental ambivalence toward a game of “ghost hunters”; the parent, who would choose a cup of tea and a New Yorker article over hunting zombies for the 15th time. Behind this scene, further, lie the emotional complexities of adulthood that feel impossible to translate.
My years of reading to the professor came at the start of graduate school, a career I’d embraced in part to compensate for the frustrations I’d sensed my father had experienced on that same path; my year of classroom reading was the year I got divorced. But if mine were semi-conscious efforts to make reparations for primal traumas, then I must have thought I could provide, through reading, something akin to the holding environment of analysis: something that would enable my son, and myself, and my father to start again. What I found instead was a transitional space: a place of meeting and departure all at once. As our children race toward adulthood and we stumble, Lear-like, toward our graves, reading to a child can give us a moment to pause in the middle, and greet each other as we pass.