My six year-old daughter Bella is learning to read. At bedtime, she no longer wants to listen to our stories but reads to us instead, pouring over the words with methodical concentration. Although she goes to a bilingual German-English school, she is being alphabetized—as they call it here—first in English. She is working her way through the Little House books and even wanted to be Laura for carnival, which required some explanation in Berlin, although I thought her homemade outfit–a flannel nightie with an apron over it, braids–was pretty good.
Both her father and I are writers and big readers, so we know what solitary pleasure awaits her. But so far, reading is a collaborative project for Bella. Her reading, by definition, requires an audience. (And because she rarely tires of it, her reading requires a very energetic audience. On more than one occasion, at the end of a long day, I admit that I’ve fallen asleep.)
I was slow to reading as a child. I preferred to be read aloud to by my parents. Maybe the effort was too much a distraction from the story, maybe I was lazy, but I didn’t have Bella’s determination to slog through the syntax of unfamiliar words until later. When I was her age I lived in a village in Kenya, near Lake Victoria. I firmly told my academic parents, “I don’t really like reading,” as in, I don’t really like ketchup, which totally freaked them out. They were there doing child development research among the Gusii tribe with T. Berry Brazelton, the American pediatrician. Much collective consternation was focused on my resistance. Was Anna missing a so-called “touchpoint?” We were soon to return to the United States, where I was supposed to enter second grade.
My father started reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to me then. So, like Bella, I was introduced to the pioneer universe of Pa and Ma and little Carrie and maple syrup from afar. (Southern Kenya and urban Berlin probably have little in common besides the dearth of real maple syrup.) Little House in the Big Woods was the first chapter book my father read to me and I still remember the amazing realization that the story got longer and longer each night: the Wisconsin winter, sisters, the log cabin, the possibility of bears.
Words read aloud take on lives of their own to be shared, examined, explained. In societies where a majority remains illiterate, reading is still a public practice by necessity. But in the days before we had so much other media competing for our attention, normal families just read aloud to one another for fun. A friend of my mother’s who is now in her nineties sailed around the world with her four siblings in the late 1920s. During the trip their mother read them the classics, from Plato to Jane Austen; books were all the entertainment they had with them on board. Reading to your children meant that parents had more control over what their children read and when they read it, and—perhaps most importantly–whether or not they understood it.
Given all they might read and misunderstand on the Internet, reading the classics out at sea with your children sounds pretty romantic, doesn’t it? Or, at least, around a cozy fireplace somewhere without wireless access?
I don’t actually want to control everything Bella reads or learns, but sometimes I wish that I could slow down the process, stay in this moment for a while. Maybe it’s the same impulse that kept me from reading on my own till I was seven. Because just as I loved it when my father read to me, now I love it when Bella looks up from the book and asks, “Why is maple sugar candy hard when maple syrup is liquid?” No doubt she’ll still ask me questions when she reads to herself, but the sacrifice of the shared experience for the private will be bittersweet. When eventually her reading skills develop to the point that she can be absorbed into the content of what she is reading, she will no longer need an audience to correct her pronunciation; she will no longer notice if I have fallen asleep on her bed; she will have entered that internal realm where books are a world and anything is possible and where she needs her parents just a little bit less.
Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR. She was raised by Harvard anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her German husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.