My younger son, Paul, is an eighth grader at Harmony Elementary School, a down-at-heels K–8 building in rural central Maine that houses about ninety students and a handful of underpaid staff members. So a few weeks ago, when he carelessly remarked, as he was pacing around the kitchen gobbling a pastrami sandwich, “You know, Mom, I think my writing style is most influenced by Dickens and Twain,” I stifled a laugh. Not much Dickens gets read at Harmony Elementary School. Yet with a second sandwich in hand, he continued to chatter on, cogently discussing the novelists’ variable syntax and sentence strategies, their interest in the minutiae of dialogue, his own dependence on hearing the sound of a sentence rhythm before knowing what he was going to write, and on, and on.
My hands buried in bread dough, I turned to gape at him. This boy, devourer of every teen dystopian novel that comes down the pike, not to mention The Comic Book History of the Universe and all of John Tunis’s 1940s baseball novels, was speaking of Dickens and Twain as if the sounds of their sentences were a part of his own brain structure, his own progressions of thought. Yet he had never read their books. What he had done was buy recordings of them from iTunes and then listen to them again and again and again.
“Read to your children!” tout the school-library posters; and, indeed, as long as your kids remain literary naïfs, reading aloud is a reasonably good way to lure them into books. Although five hundred consecutive performances of Good Night, Moon can drive a tired father to near-insanity, repetition is what children long for: they need to hear the same words over and over again; and if that comatose parent happens to mumble “fork” instead of “spoon,” his toddler will give him an earful. But as my husband and I soon discovered, a daily read-aloud menu of mediocre children’s literature was rotting our cerebella. And if it was softening our brains, how could it be really be nourishing our children’s?
Herein lies the problem: listening to literature over and over again is invaluable for growing minds of every age, but listening to stupid literature over and over is analogous to existing on a diet of Doritos. Of course Doritos have their charms, just as a certain amount of stupid literature can be tonic and invigorating. For instance, even though my ear finds the dialogue of the Harry Potter novels excruciating (“Harry, don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you. . . . ” “Wow, I wonder what it’d be like to have a difficult life?” said Harry sarcastically), it thinks that the dialogue of the Hardy Boys’ novels is hilarious. (Meanwhile, Biff had untied Chet. The heavyset teen had slumped to the ground in a dead faint. “Out cold,” Frank said. . . . Chet opened his eyes and blinked. “I’m alive!” he exclaimed. “Thanks, guys.”) But how would I know the difference if I hadn’t read both? The issue, then, isn’t having a reading diet that includes third-rate literature but the importance of developing a close familiarity with complex and various writing styles—of gaining an intense familiarity with their sounds, patterns, shifts, and surprises of language, character, structure, and theme—and learning to ask conscious and unconscious questions about those elements.
My children were not reading prodigies. Although they were always at the top of their primary-grade reading classes, they, like most of their peers, struggled with the exhaustions of decoding multisyllable words and tracking syntactically complex sentences. Yet their ears could comprehend those words and sentences—and they were eager to hear them. As their before-bedtime reader, I could not keep pace with their intense interest in stories—particularly Paul’s enthusiasm for repetition. Thus, I latched onto recorded books as a way to keep him not only engaged in complicated tales but also gainfully distracted from me.
I wasn’t altogether comfortable about taking this route. Those pedantic library posters had convinced me that I was probably a bad parent because I would do almost anything to be allowed to read silently to myself rather than aloud to my children. Moreover, I myself had zero interest in listening to audiobooks. I needed my own imagination to invent the sounds of my favorite characters; I didn’t want to poison them with someone else’s voiceover.
If, in the years of my callow new-parenthood, someone had claimed that listening over and over to a recording of David Copperfield would count as rereading David Copperfield, I would have crankily shouted, “No!” Yet the enormous impact of aural repetition on my son’s reading and writing skills has forced me to retract that reactionary shout once and for all. No, Paul hasn’t learned to love sentences in the same way that I learned to love them. If anything, he’s been luckier. When I was fourteen years old, my Dickens adoration was focused entirely on character and plot: it never occurred to me to listen to how the writer had invented them. In other words, I was learning Dickens by eye, whereas my son is learning Dickens by ear. What’s taken me till middle age to absorb he has absorbed before starting high school.
But a comprehension of sentence craft is not the only gift these books have given him. One day, when he was about nine years old, after a long afternoon spent sorting baseball cards and listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my son walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I don’t understand something. How come Jim has to do what Huck says, even though Jim is the grown-up?”
When a rural fourth grader in one of the whitest states in America is able to pinpoint, with a single, wide-eyed question, a central theme not only of Twain’s great, complex, ambiguous novel but also of our national history, of the terrible immoralities embedded in the human condition, then technology has done the author an immeasurable service. For it has helped my young child to learn, in the words of essayist John Berger, that “the boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term is impartial; the context is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience. Everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable.”
If it takes an iPod to deliver that message to our children, then so be it.
[first published in the Sewanee Review, fall 2012]