Girls After Our Own Hearts

Statue Outside Library, Nebraska City, NE

Making the rounds of the blogosphere; read it and sigh, “Those were the days.”
January 1, 2009
Wife/MotherWorker/Spy
I Wish I Could Read Like a Girl
By MICHELLE SLATALLA
FOR weeks now, I have been watching my children endure life in the
fishbowl of the holiday season. On hiatus from school, they swim
patient laps around one another in the cramped space of a family.

I don’t envy this. I know from personal experience that the last
thing you want, in that awkward decade when you are trying to figure
out who you are and where you are headed, is the pressure of being
under the constant observation of cranky grown-ups who wonder why you
aren’t unloading the dishwasher for them more often.

My daughters cope with having to live around me in much the same way
that I remember dealing with my mother. They sleep in. They stay up
very late. They put gasoline in the car just often enough to
neutralize criticism.

Watching these delicate negotiations makes me glad to be past that
stage of life. Most of the time. But there is one thing I notice my
daughters doing when they hang around the house that makes me ache,
with a terrible yearning, to be young again. They read.

Or more precisely, they read like I did when I was a girl. They drape
themselves across chairs and sofas and beds — any available
horizontal surface will do, in a pinch — and they allow a novel to
carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time
they truly don’t care about anything else.

I miss the days when I felt that way, curled up in a corner and able
to get lost in pretty much any plot. I loved stories
indiscriminately, because each revealed the world in a way I had
never considered before. The effect was so profound that I can still
remember vividly the experiences of reading “Little Women” (in my
bedroom, by flashlight) and “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (in a
Reader’s Digest condensed version at my grandmother’s) and “The
Diamond in the Window” (sitting cross-legged on the linoleum amid the
stacks at the public library). And a thousand others. After each, I
would emerge a changed person.

This has nothing to do with the way I “read” these days, with piles
of books sitting forlornly on the night table, skimmed and dog-eared
and dusty as they wait listlessly for me to feel a compelling urge to
return to them, to finish “Beginner’s Greek” or “The Girl With the
Dragon Tattoo” or even, God help me, “Midnight’s Children.”

That I can be sitting here now in another room two floors away from
those half-digested stories and be engaged, without longing for them,
in an entirely different activity is not something I would have
believed possible when I was young.

I am not sure when or exactly how I started merely reading books
instead of living in them. I could make the usual excuses about how I
no longer have the luxury of time to give in to my imagination; when
I sit down with a book, I feel the pressure — of unfinished work,
unfolded laundry, unpaid bills. But I suppose the true reason is
sadder. It’s an inevitable byproduct of growing up that I formed too
many opinions of my own to be able to give in wholeheartedly to the
prospect of living inside someone else’s universe.

Unfortunately there is only a narrow window of time, after one learns
to read but before one gets old enough to read critically, to fully
appreciate the sweet sadness of “Mick Harte Was Here” or the orphan’s
longing in “Taash and the Jesters” — I read that one eight times the
summer I was 10 — or the trapped restlessness of being the
teenaged “Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones.”

Among my three daughters, whose ages are 19, 17 and 11, I see signs
of an inevitable progression toward being skeptical readers.

I fear Zoe, the oldest, has completely lost the childhood gift of
being able to suspend disbelief. Last week, in an attempt to delay
the transition, I dug out for her one of my favorite frothy romances —
an Elinor Lipman novel called “The Inn at Lake Devine.”

But results of that experiment were mixed.

“How was it?” I asked a few days later.

“I couldn’t stop reading it,” she said, before adding, with
regret, “but I knew from the beginning how it would turn out.”

Ella, my middle daughter, has been taught in high school to be an
analytical reader. I have mixed feelings about this: good preparation
for taking standardized tests, but bad for someone who is trying to
revel without reservation in the absurd plot twists of “The Time
Traveler’s Wife.” It took me hours to persuade her it was O.K. to
turn her back on everything she had learned in science class about
the time-space continuum.

Clementine, who is 11, is the luckiest. She’s still young, so she was
able to leave the rest of us behind for whole days this year when she
was off somewhere else, inhabiting the world of a sign-language-
knowing chimp in “Hurt Go Happy.”

Currently, she totes around the house one or another of the
doorstopper-heavy volumes in Stephanie Meyer’s vampire-loves-mortal-
girl series. She comes to the dinner table wearing the hollow-eyed,
devotional expression of someone who has just glimpsed something
wonderful in a distant land.

Although there is much about the vampire books to make an adult
reader roll her eyes — Edward is too controlling and Bella has the
sort of low self-esteem mothers hope will never plague their own
daughters — I understand the appeal. At Clementine’s age, I too would
have been able to smell Edward and feel the delicious iciness of his
breath on the back of my neck. And at several hundred pages apiece,
the series of four easily would have carried me through winter break.

E-mail: Slatalla@nytimes.com

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Girls After Our Own Hearts

  1. Oh, I miss that kind of reading and lolling-time to do it. My age and education have ruined me, though, for Clementine’s otherworldly book love. Those days are over.

    I wonder if that’s why reading drops off so dramatically among junior high kids. Maybe they begin knowing too much to suspend and believe.

  2. Cindi

    I wish my two sons, ages 20 and 17 would read more. My husband and I read to them every night as toddlers until around junior high! Then, they listened to books on tapes! I really enjoyed reading your post! Thanks, Cindi

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