Read any good books lately?
Sorry, The New Yorker doesn’t count.
Of all of the stuff we give up when we become parents – good habits and bad – no one sacrifice strikes me as quite so ironic as the long, indulgent narratives we suddenly do not have the time or the patience or the enthusiasm to plunge into.
Of course that is only the tip of the hypocritical iceberg: we acknowledge, and even revere, the salubrious benefits of exercise – whether Pee Wee Soccer or flamenco or badminton or jujitsu - while we ourselves grow manifestly fatter and creakier and less coordinated by the day. We spend more time arguing about little things than we probably ever did, still insisting on civility among the kids. We wisely ration computer game-time for its putative assaults on developing attention spans, and yet we have never in our individual histories been more likely to stumble headfirst into an ocean while relying on a telephone to tell us where we’re going, or what the stock market is doing, or who said, supposedly, what. Isn’t it brave – isn’t it noble? – to demonstrate so little regard for our relative well being?
So many distractions, and yet if you are the type of parent who likes to regard themselves as any way informed, then all of the admonishments about raising a happy, healthy uber-child have also never been louder or clearer - and you may be excused for occasionally cowering under rationalizations. When I was a kid we drank a lot of Coke (from 8 ounce green glass bottles) and we had no idea how bad that was for us, or how likely to result in obesity and type 2 diabetes, though we know exactly how bad it is for us today, when Coke comes in twenty-something varieties, often in portions that weigh more than your head. It’s not the stakes that are necessarily bigger than they were, it’s the players.
All of which might seem a very long way from the subject of books, still consider: we may crow as long as we like in all of the usual places about the value of children’s literacy, but that is very different thing from loving to read, and I’m not so sure we make an excellent case for the latter when our personal consumption is generally limited to chewable supplements. This is an easy enough habit to get into, I think, from the first, amazing time your child takes a nap, and you’ve got one hour, maybe three, to actually finish with something, then before you know it every day is appearing before you like a field full of holes that need urgently filling. Now more than ever. There’s hardly any telling sometimes between the errand and the indulgence.
With our thousands of miraculous diversions and touchscreen availability, who would ever again want to emerge on the other foggy side of Dostoevsky, three hours, or thirteen years, later? Well, I would. That’s the dream. And while I do not suppose that Rotten Ralph was really keeping any embers aglow until I was finally ready to pile some genuine timber on that fire, the world of children’s picture books has nevertheless provided some pretty worthy epics, some of them accessible in as little as five or fifteen minutes. That is the job of great literature, in part: to cover the most improbable distances – in miles and years and generations – in a span of mere pages. For my children this has hopefully raised their expectation of the form – but let’s forget about the children for a second, okay? We’re the ones who could really use a reminder.