When I was growing up there weren’t quite the infinite number of books available to the reading public that there are now. Granted there were the usual standbys, all the classics, of course. I devoured the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Little House on the Prairie series, the Little Women books, Anne of Green Gables, and such. Even during school there were those books that stuck with me: I adored the scandalous Candide. Lysistrata as well (who knew way back then women actually conspired to cut off sex to get what they wanted?).
But it probably wasn’t till high school that a book would forge a lasting impact on me, and it wasn’t even a book I read. That’s when I studied Latin with Mr. Bush, and each year at Christmas time, Mr. Bush would drop everything and read.
Now, those of you with school-aged children might have experienced the Drop Everything and Read Program. It’s a wonderful day set aside at elementary schools for kids to enjoy having stories read to them. Often children show up to school in their pajamas and slippers; the day is very free-flowing and relaxed, and it’s all about sinking into a good book. I loved those DEAR days for my kids, as did they.
I suppose Mr. Bush was a little ahead of his time (and a little past prime with a bunch of high schoolers!), but each year during the weeks leading up to Christmas vacation, instead of making us translate and interpret the Aeneid or the Odyssey or speeches from Julius Caesar (and yes, we did read those!), Mr. Bush would read aloud excerpts from a wonderful memoir by Jean Shepherd, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
You may be familiar with Mr. Shepherd and not even know it: he is the narrator in the charming holiday film A Christmas Story, set in the 1940’s in a midwestern town in which a young boy yearns desperately for a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa, even though the adults in his life insist it’s too dangerous and he’ll shoot his eye out. This movie was drawn from Jean Shepherd’s evocative memoir, a story so simple yet charming and engrossing that it has lingered with me more than 25 years after it was read to me by my teacher.
There is such a singular pleasure in having someone read a story to you, and to have the pleasure of being able to read aloud to someone else. Now that my kids are teenagers, I greatly miss those intimate moments of sharing in books together. In fact, the final episode in the Harry Potter series was doubly bittersweet to me, because when the book first came out, I read it aloud to my oldest child, then a small boy, and with each successive book, the younger girls joined in. With this final book, all of my kids were too old and too busy to figure out a time during which we could all read it together, which made me feel wistful–the end of an era and the end of one of those simple joys of life. I guess until they have kids (which better not be for a good long time!).
In the meantime, I suppose the closest I’ll come to have someone reading me a story is to pop in my tape of A Christmas Story, and let Mr. Shepherd take me back to a simpler time, when all I had to worry about were declining verbs in Latin and oh, maybe having to read that dreadful Ethan Frome…