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Coming from an essentially matriarchal family, I was a bit scant of ideas on how to raise a son. I was neither athletic nor mechanical, and people seemed to think that these were primary requirements for relating to a boy. Since my relationship with books has been a defining thread in my life, it was not surprising that my visions of motherhood soon turned to shared reading. Reading aloud was both recommended for good parenting and something that I could definitely do. It turned out, however, that I didn’t quite realize how much I had signed myself up for.
Reading seemed to be exactly suited to my older son, a boy who didn’t like to sleep, wanted to be held around the clock, and liked to observe things. I read all of the expected books: Goodnight Moon; Good Night, Gorilla; The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Dr. Seuss. I had not, perhaps, anticipated his thirst for repetition: Even now, when he is in graduate school, I can repeat whole passages of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by heart. And as he developed his own taste, I found myself immersed in more eccentric literature: Home Depot catalogues, his grandfather’s mobile crane manual, old National Geographic magazines.
His younger brother’s path toward literature was a little more winding. An early walker and household destroyer, I found myself reading aloud to my exuberant little charmer while he ran in circles and swept books, tchotchkes and cooking pans off the shelves. His taste was more edgy than technical, running to repeated reads of Everyone Poops and Captain Underpants.
Still, the three of us soldiered on through the haphazard glories and inanities of early reading, and as they grew a little older, the evening reading ritual became a little haven of family solidarity. No matter the disasters and disputes of the day, we were happy together following Bilbo Baggins to the Lonely Mountain, or Jules Verne’s adventurers on their way to the centre of the Earth. Even their father was gripped by the oddball quest in E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, the story of how a voiceless swan captivates the love of his life by learning to play the trumpet.
Over time, I found that our shared reading became a touchstone of our life together. As we discussed the choices of characters and the justness of the fates that the authors apportioned to them, my sons opened up about the happenings of their days. We had conversations about surprising things. And when we were facing difficult choices or had made mistakes, we could use the characters from our favourite books to talk about fear, anger, pride, shame and forgiveness, my own as well as theirs. As well, we harvested a trove of family catchphrases and references. We still sometimes talk in the rhyming catchphrases of one of our favourite characters: “Crunchings and munchings?” I’ll ask as I hand over the bag of snacks.
I assumed that one day, my sons would outgrow our reading ritual and it would naturally come to an end. I was therefore a little surprised to find myself reading The Iliad and Great Expectations to teenage boys. While I had never heard of anyone else continuing to read aloud to their kids for this long, no one seemed to be in a hurry to stop. In fact, we were having a better time than ever as we read more complex and interesting books. True, with more activities and deadlines, we often missed some evenings, but we always came back to it. I found that the slower pace and enforced attention of reading aloud revealed new aspects to books that I had thought I already knew deeply. For the first time, I noticed how the grotesquely violent descriptions in The Iliad (“he stuck his spear through the eyeball, piercing the brain pan …”) and repetitive catchphrases as warriors died (“he fell, heavily, and his armour clattered upon him”) made this very old work feel both modern, akin to some kind of Tarantino movie, as well as a timeless revelation of the waste and cruelty of war. The quandary of how exactly one reads aloud Huckleberry Finn sparked some conversations about racism that we might never otherwise have had.
When my oldest son started preparing to head off to university across the country, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I chose Tom Jones as a final book for the two of us. A classic novel about a young man setting out into the world, sowing his wild oats, making mistakes and finding his feet, it seemed a fitting send-off. I embarked on a program of science-fiction classics with my younger, but the end of the shared reading adventure seemed to be approaching. However, when my eldest came home from university that first Christmas, he suggested that the two of us find a short novel to read together. To be honest, I was a little surprised that he picked Pride and Prejudice, which is often thought of as a female preserve. However, he found it both funny and interesting, and when he returned for the summer, we embarked on a tour of female novelists that continued all through his undergraduate years, whenever he was home.
As I prepared to become an empty nester this fall, with one son off to start his undergraduate degree and the other planning to move out permanently for graduate school, the approaching end of our shared reading felt like a surprisingly heavy loss. But now the pandemic, with its accompanying switch to online university learning, has brought us all back home one more time. One son has picked a trilogy about the First World War, the other a thousand-page fantasy novel, so it looks as if, well into my third decade of reading aloud, we still have some road ahead of us.
Some day, I said to my younger son, our reading will all be over, and I will miss it. “Well,” he said, “I was actually thinking, when I leave, maybe you could read to me over the phone…”
Lauren Bates lives in Toronto.