My most recent experience of the psychology of the empty nest – or, to put it another way, of time racing by so fast it leaves me panting and terrified that my cramped fingers are slipping off the cliff of life – happened over dinner during the holidays.
Sister No. 1 was bemoaning the fact that the painting she had inherited from our late mother was not, in fact, a George Stubbs landscape appraised at $300,000, as Ma had said, but one by a lesser Stubbs, worth $100 if she was lucky. Sister No. 2 then began to worry over the picture she had been bequested by our lying mother.
It features a cart horse standing backward in a farmer’s lane, painted in the late 1800s by John Frederick Herring Jr. He and his father were a shrewd pair: J.F. Herring Sr. churned out portraits of racehorses for the emerging British mercantile class, while Junior specialized in nostalgic Victorian country scenes (e.g., Horses and Pigs).
At this point, my daughter, a second-year McGill University literature and art-history major, perked up: “Herrick? The poet?”
“No,” I countered. “Herring. The painter.”
“Oh,” she said. “Because there is a poet named Herrick.”
“Yes, I know.”
She looked at me. “Have you read Herrick?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
That is, at least I remembered seeing his name … post-Renaissance, flowers, countryside, something something something.
Still, I knew what was happening. I had spent the first 19 years of my daughter’s life being the well-read one, trying to forge a fathomless father-daughter connection based on a mutual life of the mind.
Now, suddenly, in her second year of university, she was speeding by me, reading wider and deeper than I had, and faster than I ever could. She was needling me to keep up. But I knew it was hopeless. She was now educating me, and I was the rookie.
Robert Herrick, the poet, it transpires, was the 17th-century contemporary and acolyte of Ben Jonson who wrote:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying.
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
He came by his famous sense of carpe diem honestly: His father fell out a window to his death (fourth floor) when the boy was a year old. He was apprenticed to his uncle, a goldsmith, but instead read at Cambridge to become a vicar in Devonshire, where he wrote 2,500 classically themed poems, roughly half of which are published in his only book, Hesperides. (There was very little else to do in Devonshire, as Herrick points out in several poems.)
Easy for him to insist that one should live for the moment – Herrick didn’t have children. Children are hostages to fortune, as another English writer famously said: As soon as you become a parent, you start to worry about your child’s future, and try to control it, even if you know you cannot.
I wanted my daughter to be deeply, traditionally literate because I am convinced that knowing your way around stories, famous and otherwise, is a valuable skill in any profession. I just didn’t want her to be more literate than I am.
For a long time, the odds were in my favour. Little of the reading I gave her – Catcher in the Rye, Tom Wolfe’s funniest reporting, the Potter books (both Beatrix and Harry), The New York Times, Tennyson, Kipling – caught her interest at the time. She read her own or her mother’s books – The Giver (in fourth grade), The Velvet Room, the stories of Deborah Ellis, countless plays (especially Shakespeare) – for her own reasons.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I did not long to have a reading relationship with my daughter as a way of hanging on to her. I know that the empty-nest watchers, the experts in postsecondary sadness, say this is precisely the mistake modern parents make: Instead of recognizing our lives are in a new chapter, we resist change. We try to stay parental, authoritative, reliable, which is why so many adult children still feel perfectly fine living in their parents’ homes.
I wasn’t trying to do that. I just wanted to be the well-read, literary one in my family, and I figured my kids were my most advantageous point of comparison. For a long time, it worked. Damn Herrick to hell.
Of course, I could point out that my daughter spends more hours than I would have thought physiologically possible on her laptop and her phone. I could make the case that she is part of a distracted millennial generation that doesn’t read, that prefers virtual life to the hardcover version. I would like to say that, but it isn’t true.
In fact, people today are reading more. In 2002, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts revealed that half the country had not read a single book in the preceding year. Ten years on, according to a large survey conducted less than a month ago by the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Americans read a book last year. That might seem paltry, but it’s a jump of 50 per cent.
Among the readers, the average number of books absorbed in a year was an impressive 15; the median was six. But older people are reading less. About 90 per cent of 16-year-olds are readers, the Pew study found, compared with only 67 per cent of those aged 65 and up.
Technology seems to enhance this trend. The number of 16– and 17-year-old readers who read at least one e-book last year rose 16 per cent from the year before, a huge number. Among people my own age, in their 50s, the number was 4 per cent. I’m not surprised. While my daughter hacks her way through Herrick, I have been rewatching 78 hours’ worth of The Sopranos. It’s brilliant TV, but as a cortical workout it doesn’t make the intellectual demands of close textual analysis.
Had I been competing against the academic likes of my daughter today – a ridiculous comparison, but tell me you haven’t considered it – I wouldn’t have won a spot in university. That makes sense: A generation that has grown up texting and typing (that is, writing), and looking and learning through one device or another for hours a day, is bound to be more nimbly literate.
The proof of this is the abundance of first-rate magazine writing available online today. Read Grantland, or n+1, or The Believer – the best of them can compete with The New Yorker. Three New Yorkers in one generation? That’s a lot of good writing.
Among the best of these is the online magazine Rookie, which I found while rambling around the Facebook pages of my daughter and her friends. It describes itself as “a website for teenage girls,” but that’s like saying The Sopranos is about waste management.
It’s also a website for young feminists (though Rookie’s writers have a lot to say about what that word implies) who are interested in everything.
A partial list of random tags from a recent edition: twilight,winona ryder, tim burton, self-care, m.i.a., friendship breakups, global warming, willy wonka and the chocolate factory, nighttime, ella, pens, the greg kihn band, samuel johnson, valley girls, snobs, (500) days of summer, i.u.d, cornrows, prom dresses, betseyville, dangerous angels, the pool, aphex twin, the winchester brothers, zora neale hurston, glamazon, equality, keurig elite 40 brewing system, talking animals, deceit, drunk history, analytical engine, olivia bee, belief, church camp …
I learn at least 10 new words an issue. The writing is raw, but often hopeful, and thus surprisingly refreshing.
Rookie’s founding editor, Tavi Gevinson, is 16. She first became famous as a 12-year-old fashion blogger in the Chicago suburbs whose eccentric but quietly confident sense of style soon made her the muse of any number of designers.
She’s not an attention junkie: She said she was too busy to be interviewed for this story because she had homework. She admits to wracking doubt as easily as she talks about things she loves, of which there are tons.
Some of the magazine’s flair is the work of editorial director Anaheed Alani, who also happens to be the wife of Ira Glass, the host of the hit American public-radio show This American Life. But whoever produces it, the writing is sublime – deeply personal, candid but cool, unashamedly forthright, seldom show-offy or careerist (unlike some of its older peers), and rarely angry.
This is a new feminist writing, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique next month, and one that befits a generation of young women who have spent hours alone and online in their bedrooms enthusiastically describing the difference between their inner lives and their outer manifestations – a classic subject of teenagers, and also of essayists for, oh, the past 2,500 years.
Rookie is where Lena Dunham, who created the audacious HBO show Girls, described the first time she had sex. (Girls started its second season last week, the same night Ms. Dunham tottered onstage to win a Golden Globe Award. Perhaps Rookie will publish her account of why she decided to wear heels so high they made her walk like she’d filled her pants.)
Each issue has a theme: Mythology, Faith, Invention, Drama and On the Road have been a few. But the magazine’s subjects range from witty self-help (“Stress is not some club where people vote and drink whisky all the time. It’s just life. And young people … burn out all the time. They just aren’t taught to recognize or deal with it, because they’re not old dudes named Chet who work in a bank”) to daring cultural theory (“How do you deal with enjoying/loving things that happen to be at least a little bit misogynistic?”) to the pleasures of reading Emily Dickinson to, frequently, sex, pleasurable or not (including, for instance, a gripping if slightly cautionary tale about the appeal of much older men).
When I first started reading it, I spent four hours poring over it without looking up.
One of the things that that finally brought me out of my reverie was an essay my daughter had submitted to a professor and sent on to me, with the title “The Reciprocity of Love in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and William Congreve’s The Way of the World ” – an essay about the role of reason and respect in romantic love. I could never have written it. Not at 39, never mind at 19.
What shocks (and thrills) me most about being surpassed as a rabid reader isn’t the surpassing – that has to be a sign that something went right – but the speed of the zoom-around, and the age at which she has managed it. But this is an intellectually ambitious generation of young women, with a racing sense of purpose.
Herrick understood the desirability of doing things now instead of later, given the racehorse speed at which life gallops by, and the unevenness of the course:
Thus I Pass by
The chance to describe life starts to end as soon as it stops beginning. The new girls seem to have grasped that already.
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