Listen, My Children

The joy of being read to.

Listen, My Children

One of my fondest childhood memories is of eating sliced apples with my siblings at bedtime while our mother read to us. Our favorite story was “Poohsticks,” from The House at Pooh Corner, where Eeyore floats downriver and is mistaken for a stick. We also loved the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, though I’m not sure those are still in print. We were enthralled by The Secret Garden. Also by The Hobbit.

(It was years before I discovered that when our mother read The Hobbit to us, she skipped the part where Fili and Kili died.)

In The Book of Dust, author Philip Pullman calls imagination “perception.” That is, perception of things that don’t always take a physical form. He suggests that, without imagination, you cannot be fully human. So that when we enter the world of the imagination through books, we are actually learning to perceive things, and the ability to perceive things makes us more complete.

In college, I took a degree in English with a minor in oral interpretation. A credential in reading aloud seems an eccentric choice by today’s standards, but literature was my passion, and oral interpretation helped me share my passion with others.

As a teacher, I frequently read aloud to my students when I wanted to switch things up. And, for the last year and a half, I’ve been reading poems, often chosen by our listeners, for a weekly podcast produced by the American Scholar magazine.

Also, like my mother, I read to my kids while they were growing up. We made our way through scores of books, from Furry Tales by Tony Ross to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It was a beautiful way to share abstractions with my children and to open up interesting conversations.

At difficult periods of their lives, reading together provided an important bridge between us. Around the time my daughter entered adolescence, we read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Villette. As we made space in our inner lives for these wonderful characters and stories, we enjoyed each other’s company. But I think we also sorted through some perplexing and complicated questions without even realizing we were doing it.

Now my kids are all grown up. But my daughter, whose own degrees are in literature, reads to the children she tutors in Paris. My son is reading nightly to his 1-year-old in Sydney. And there are certain audiobooks which captivate me now in almost the same way my mother’s reading captivated me as a child.

Which brings me back to Philip Pullman and his new trilogy, The Book of Dust, as read by Michael Sheen. My friends, it is magic! Pullman has created this extraordinary parallel world, with different rules and conditions, so there’s a sense of discovery when I’m listening to it. The combination of coziness and familiarity with fantasy, adventure, and fresh ways of looking at the world keeps me open to new perceptions.

Sheen’s narration is marvelous. He does full justice to the writing and to the characters without ever overdoing it. Who cares about being stuck in traffic if you can listen to this? Right now, the audio app tells me I have 12 hours left in volume two. Whatever will I do when I’ve finished?

I’d like to think that although there are fewer serious readers than in previous decades, and although there is a marked decline in the study of literature at the university level, the popularity of audiobooks attests to the fact that people still want what a reading habit can offer them. Maybe we are consuming books in a different form.

At any rate, we like being read to, and that’s a pleasure we can foster in our children. We can do it with the knowledge that we are nourishing their inner worlds, their imaginations, and their very capacity for perception itself.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast “Read Me a Poem” for the American Scholar.

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