This year, a miracle has been unfolding before my eyes.
My son is becoming a reader. Yes, Grade One: Where miracles happen! Just a few months ago, we would sit at night and I’d read to him and his little sister. Now each night he takes out his school readers and reads to us. It is a miracle, because the parts of his “training” don’t seem to add up to the whole. Like the flying bumblebee, I don’t understand how the boy can read just from the handful of rules, sounds and memorized idiosyncrasies of our language. Yet there it is. Not just “the”, “and” ,”he”, but suddenly whole sentences. I couldn’t feel more mesmerized than if he came home with a super power. After all, I’ve known the kid for six years and he’s never been able to do anything like this before.
Reading is akin to learning a language in that once opaque communications all around you suddenly become understandable. The world becomes so much of a richer place, and one’s ability to travel in it leaps: Ah, a MEN’s room! OK!
But as a writer, and a reader, I can’t help thinking about books and stories. These are powerful and durable goods; they not only shape one’s mind in a way, I think, no other art can, they are shareable like ideas and values, handed from friend to friend and from generation to generation.
My father was a storyteller. A surgeon, he was no reader (if you know a surgeon you may know what I mean, they prefer to think of themselves as macho plumbers than intellectuals). He revelled in the fact that his favourite books were Archie comics or Calvin & Hobbes collections. But he was a magnificent storyteller; an embellisher of the real, and an improviser of the fictitious. I’m sure he read to us, but I don’t remember that. I remember his own storytelling very well. To the three boys, he used to make up adventure stories of three OTHER boys, named Oogle, Poogle and Wook. When a fourth brother came along, the protagonist group also grew, becoming Oogle, Poogle, Koogle and Wook.
My father was no reader, but he encouraged it, pushed it, on his kids. He never refused to buy us a book (a pledge I reminded him of when I wanted some encyclopedia of pro tennis). By the time I was in middle school, I was reading up to three hundred pages a day, often holding a Tolkien paperback open under my desk as the teacher went on about – well, how would I know?
I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that reading and books helped make me the man I am. That miracle of reading birthed another miracle: the creation of whole worlds in my imagination from deciphering ink spots on bleached tree pulp. Now I’ve become lazy in the comfort of reading. I love my favourite authors so much I often fail to experiment with the new and unknown. I can always find something from Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Mordecai Richler or Herman Hesse that I haven’t read yet. Although now I’m lucky to read three hundred pages in a month.
Sometime as a teenager my friend Claude passed me on a magnificent book called Handling Sin; a comic epic about an aged, larger-than-life father and adult son. I loved the book, and my father, the Archie aficionado, read it, and read it and read it again. He passed it to his brother, and my brothers, and it became our family book. I read it first when I was 14, and I’ve probably read it over a dozen times since. When Mordecai Richler’s last great work, Barney’s Version came out, it became another shared treasure for my father and I (another comic epic about an aged and imposing father and his adult children).
Those books, and the Archies and Calvin & Hobbes, were something beautiful that we shared, even as we found little else to talk about some years, as I tried to distance myself from my father’s enormous shadow.
I was always expected, by my father, by myself, to become a doctor or scientist (my brothers became a surgeon, an engineer and a computer scientist – I wish that rhymed!). At last, after some wandering, I became a writer: of non-fiction, of fiction, of business and political communications.
When I saw the movie Big Fish, about a young journalist who resents his father’s lifelong proclivity for spinning tales, but finally rediscovers the beauty of his father’s gift, I felt like the movie itself had been one of my father’s narratives of our lives – except for the resentment. (Yes, another comic epic about a big-persona old dad and his mundane kid).
Now, my son. When he was a baby, I read to him whatever I was reading. What was the difference? He didn’t understand it. He’d sit in his baby seat and I’d read from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and Homer’s Iliad. I always loved reading aloud, and he and his sister gave me an excuse to.
Now my son is a reader, and my heart is bursting with excitement for him to discover Roald Dahl and my other childhood favourites. I imagine Tolkien or Robert Louis Stephenson or later, Douglas Adams, opening his imagination the way they opened mine.
Though the kids love my improvised storytelling – grand epics of a young boy and his little sister, Oogle and Poogle – I have an even greater urge to share the treasures of other writer’s books with them.
Someday we’ll share Handling Sin, of course. There was a rare new book that I tried a couple years ago that I’m sure we’ll love together, A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz. A comic epic about a larger-than life, aged father and his adult son.
**My father was a widower, raising four sons by himself, but I don’t want to give the impression my mom had no hand in that-part-of-me-that-writes. I have strong recollections of her encouraging my earliest creative efforts, taking the time to painstakingly illustrate my early school-work stories. My mother was, for some years before she passed, a Jewish folk singer. Her duo’s album: L’dor va dor, Hebrew for “From Generation to Generation”.