“Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works. At one time I never went out without a second-hand bookseller’s list in my pocket. I know no reading more fruity.
“Of course to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousand books than to have ploughed a million furrows? Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without—who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him?—and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.
“And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.”
-W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), “The Book-Bag,” Collected Short Stories, Vol. IV
Liam was with me for a couple of days last week. He is almost six and suddenly reads with astonishing fluency. Reading is downright fun for him, I guess that’s why, and the more you do something you love, the better you get at it. I was pleased to realize that he would be just the person at just the stage to appreciate The Disappearing Alphabet by Richard Wilbur, so I searched through my bookshelves to find it. We read it together with many giggles.
The artwork, by David Diaz, is much more pleasing to me than that in The Pig in the Spigot, another of Wilbur’s books for children which I wrote about here once. Each page is devoted to a letter of the alphabet, with a short verse musing on what would happen to our beloved world if that letter were no more.
After reading the book, then eating dinner, we went on one of my creek walk loops. Immediately we began to practice our mutual love of plants and their names. My grandson is starting to understand that I don’t know every plant, and our nature study is more of a joint effort now, with him not saying, “What is this?” so much, and saying, “Grandma, look!” more.
But he brought up the subject of the alphabet also, as we walked along, saying, out of the blue, “If there were no letter N, we wouldn’t have pain! or lanes! — or extensions!”
Our walk took longer than I planned, because I had forgotten about how it’s our habit to meander and pick things, as I had started out with Liam in Flowery Town years ago.
We ate quite a few new-green wild fennel fronds on this walk, and even some slightly older ones, comparing the flavor. And several times he reminded me that we must take the route home that passes by the pineapple guava hedge, because he was eager to taste the flowers I’d mentioned.
We ate flower petals, and got to bed late, and the next morning the boy picked more right next to my garden dining spot, which he added to our breakfast feast. Rarely is it truly the right weather to eat breakfast outdoors here in my city, and this may have been my first time to do it with company so agreeable.
The middle of this second day was spent at my church, where the end of the children’s week-long summer program featured a long session of water play, and Liam was delighted to get all wet and to eat a popsicle.
Even here, he drew my attention to a tree blooming right above, which I’m sure I’d never noticed before. Our rector said he planted it himself “way back.”
While children were settling down for the Bible lesson that morning, another boy showed me this fly that he was admiring on his hand. I think Liam was already waiting patiently on the other side of the circle so he didn’t see it.
Later that afternoon I had planned to have him help me clean the greenhouse, but then realized he’d like better to pick sweet peas to take home to his mother. I have only a little patch that I didn’t pull out yet. He was diligent about that task for nearly an hour, and collected a large jarful. I made headway on the greenhouse, and we took breaks to study the bumblebees that only recently decided to mob those flowers.
One day we had read Monarch and Milkweed, and the other, I showed him my milkweed plants; the Showy Milkweed is in a jungle behind the fig tree, where I hope, if Monarch caterpillars hatch out, the birds might not notice them…?
Liam helped me to see my flowers without a magnifying glass. As we were looking at some tiny succulent flowers, and I was trying to get a good picture of them, I began to notice little black dots on them. “Are those holes in the petals, can you see?” I asked him. He squatted down and looked hard, and told me that they were things on the ends of hairs coming out of the middle of the flower. Ah, stamens! When I enlarged the photo, I could see, too:
We washed rocks! Liam had been examining and organizing one of my collections of pebbles and stones and such in the house, and out here I had him put these larger stones from the Sierras and from the Sacramento River through some sudsy water and a rinse, so they could wait presentably until I find a use for them.
What other things did we both like to do while he was visiting? Eat ice cream cones, and judge matchbox car races, and read Winnie-the-Pooh. Many times during his last hours with me, lines from Pooh or The Disappearing Alphabet would come to his mind and he would say them again, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, knowing I liked them, too. He especially liked these from the page about the letter L:
“Any self-respecting duck would rather be extinct than be an uck.”
I was so grateful to Liam’s parents for making this intimate visit work out. Next time I see him, he will be more grown up, and a different boy. But probably not all that different. I hope we can always find a way to share our love for words and plants and many more details and gifts of this vast world in which our loving Father has placed the two of us as grandma and grandson.
I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.
Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:
The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.
Oh, how I love this aspect of the experience of summer as I have known it, in my youth and now in my older years… I never saw this poem before, and am thankful to Oliver Tearle and his Interesting Literature blog for the collection in which I found it.
The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,