READING IN CHALLENGING TIMES
In hard times, we open a book and we’re never quite alone. Keeping us company are those who’ve read the story before—sometimes even our past selves.
When my partner was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, I turned to my sons’ bookshelves, looking for a way to talk to them about life and death. C. S. Lewis believed, ‘A children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say’. Direct and simple, these tales are stripped to their essential elements. One of those elements very often is magic. Fairy tales present us with an alternate reality that feels familiar. A cast of animals may talk, but they are in a regular-looking classroom, or riding the bus, or being told by their parents to go to bed. As children turn the pages, they’re in a world adjacent to their own, with the possibility that some enchantment will slip from the book into their own lives. For the adult reading to a child, the magic can be time travel.
I wanted a book to hold us, as in hold us in place, hold us together. I felt a version of this embrace when I read my sons the picture books my grandfather had once read to me. The saturated colour of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar took me into the domestic palette of the 1970s. I could have been back on my grandparents’ couch patterned with bright orange autumn leaves, ricocheting to a time when everyone I loved was still alive, and I hadn’t known loss… though many of the books themselves had been created in response to grief. Carle conceived of his luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the deprivations of a bleak, war-torn childhood. C.S. Lewis’s mother died of cancer when he was nine-years-old and her love became, 'the great continent…sunk like Atlantis.'
Now that I was reading these authors’ classics to my sons, I thought of my much loved grandfather, who read in a gruff monotone. I wondered if anyone ever read to him? His father died on a French battlefield when he was a baby, but, in reading to me sixty-odd years later, he was passing on the message that, even in the worst of times, a path will emerge through the woods, and it is possible to weave straw into something golden—messages I wanted my children to hear.
We read to be taken somewhere else. A book is a form of escape we may experience physiologically—psychologists write about the phenomenon of grounded cognition, where, for instance, a person reading about sailing has a physiological sense of being at sea. Cast into another realm, we safely practice hard emotions. Each book becomes a kind of simulation. We follow various protagonists, we learn about wise and unwise decisions, we begin to understand other people’s lives.
During our household’s experience of serious illness, we got lost and found in stories—and I came to know it was not only to soothe me that my grandfather had read me those books. Adults tell children stories in part to console themselves.