Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.
It’s your dad here. The one without the milk.
Please excuse this decidedly old fashioned way of communicating. Letters are rather passe even now. No doubt by the time you’re old enough to read this you’ll probably be communicating via holographic kitten emojis beamed directly between brain implants.
I want to be straight with you. So far in our three month relationship I haven’t actually felt like a parent. I’ve always thought parenting meant imparting wisdom to you, like Atticus to Scout. All I feel I’ve imparted is fresh nappies and a firm tap on the back during 3am burping sessions.
With this in mind I’d like to start my parenting now. And what better way than by introducing you to books.
First of all, the basics. What is a book? Sadly for you, despite its similar spelling, it is not a boob, something you know and demonstrably love.
Books are those flat, chunky things lying everywhere about our home. Books are what prop your crib at an angle to stop you vomiting, what your mum holds in her free hand while feeding you, and they are the gifts that you can’t wear.
And these inanimate, lifeless pieces of matter are some of the most important and formidable things in the world. Some are beautiful, others are plain, but all books are valuable.
Next: how do you use a book? Chewing and dribbling on them is not acceptable. But we’ll excuse that for the first few years. I think we’ve got a few drool-proof books especially for you. You’ll be glad to hear, however, that sniffing them is permissible well into adult life.
The best way to get something out of a book, beyond its limited nutrition, is to read it. Reading is hard, but once you force those dancing letters to settle down into words, you will have all the keys to all the kingdoms right there in your head.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Dad’s getting overexcited again, like that time he thought I cracked my first smile but it was just a prelude to a burp. Books sounds great, but what can they really do?”
Well, my dear, I hope you’re sitting comfortably.
Books give you a way of decoding this crazy muddle of life. They will give you a way of describing the world, a way of finding your way through the extraordinary and the everyday. They are also a much needed refuge and escape. There are books for the break ups and the break downs, the make ups and the get downs.
Every moment has an echo on the page. You won’t able to see a wooded path without thinking of Robert Frost, of hearing about a terrible thing called slavery without calling to mind Toni Morrison, or of feeding the pet pigoon we get you for your tenth birthday without recalling Margaret Atwood.
Books teach you empathy. Want to know what life is like for someone who looks different to you? Read Chinua Achebe’s books. Want to know what it’s like to be born into a poverty that – God willing – you will never know? Read Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers. Want to know why people do the dangerous, selfless, shocking and inspirational things they do? Read any book. Books help you see the fallible, doughy-fleshed people behind the labels.
Books will tell you about far off lands and outlandish ideas. They will be the itch in your feet that sets you off to places I will never see. They will be fire in your belly that urges you to make the world that wee bit better.
Books will set your imagination free. You are not bound by the physical limits of your – admittedly very cute – fingers and toes. Magic lives in books. So do unicorns. Books let you hang out with magic unicorns. And when you get a bit older, books will help keep this most precious part of your childhood alive. Never lose the ability to find wonder and enjoyment in things that boring, imagination-deficient adults describe as ‘silly’.
Books are how we learn anything. Yes, people can just tell us stuff. But most of the time, they just read it in a book. And they might have bad breath. And be wrong. So stick to books.
I could go on, but you’re stirring in your sleep. But before I go, just a few last operational points.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t read a particular kind of book. Or that genre fiction isn’t as worthy as literature. Or that comics are just for kids. Here be snobs. Don’t be a snob.
Avoid people who proudly say they don’t read. Unless you want to poop on them. That is allowed, nay, encouraged. Well, at least while you’re still in nappies.
And finally, be generous. If you love something, share it. I’m looking forward to all the books that you’ll introduce me to, those as yet unwritten children’s classics that we’ll read together before we both nod off to sleep, carrying those stories into our yet unformed dreams.
Dear Matilda, this world you’ve inherited is more unfair and cruel, more complex and fun, more beautiful and generous than you dare imagine. If you want proof, read.