What We Become by Reading

NPR ran a beautiful Father’s Day story yesterday with Alice Ozma, author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, and her dad, Jim.

Reading was an important family tradition for them – one that started when Alice was a little older than that classic image of parent-child reading moments. The lovely thing about traditions is that you can start them at any time; it’s the meaning they hold for you that makes them precious memories, not the length of time you’ve been celebrating them.

Was reading a tradition in your family? Since this is Father’s Day, what books did your dad introduce you to? Or did he impart a general love of reading?

My father was around for only two years of my life and then he was off traveling the world for many years. Before he left, he introduced me to and read to me from A.A. Milne (possibly his personal favorite) and Potter (Beatrix, this was a few years before Harry was born!). One of the few family photos he kept from this time is a faded image of me, propped on his knee, while he read Squirrel Nutkin or something similar.

By the time he was gone, I was already an avid reader, enabling contact with my faraway father through the post cards he mailed from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and New Zealand, which is where he was born and grew up. In that way, he introduced me to the rest of the world and an interest in travel and other cultures, and the way to quench that thirst for knowledge was through reading.

It was my stepfather, though, who had the more profound influence on my life as a young reader. He arrived when I was 8 and, as stepparents can do, had an effect on the mood and culture of our family, which unexpectedly turned conservative.

My stepfather had grown up during the Depression, and his family lost everything. As a result, he applied himself to his studies, went to work younger than most his age, and, unlike his classmates, when he got into Yale, had to put himself through with several jobs. Understandably, he appreciated everything he earned and everything he learned.

His conservative outlook applied to all things except reading. He was intellectually curious, a devout reader, and encouraged an eclectic reading taste in me. At 8, I was already used to being able to read anything in the house, whether intended for children or adults, and this he never discouraged, adding his own books to our collection.

In the decade before his death, it was a relief and a joy to discover my stepfather and I had reached an accord, and the common ground was created by a love of reading and the ideas that sprang from books. We shared interests through authors – me supplying him with books by Stewart Edward White, whose adventure stories he’d grown up reading; he sending along the latest John McPhee tome.

My father and I were not able to declare peace, though I did spend the last few weeks of his life with him. It was clear there would be no resolution, so we shared time in each other’s company, looking at picture books of New Zealand. On the desk was a thick volume, C.S. Lewis’s complete Chronicles of Narnia. It was something my dad had always wanted to read, but never got round to and no longer had the strength to pursue. And so, in his last hours, when every breath was a struggle, I read to him of Narnia, in hopes that a familiar voice could help somehow on that final journey.