Reading was a massive part of my childhood and I often left myself saucer-eyed by staying awake all night with my nose in some dusty old paperback. It’s one reason I find the moral panic about the antisociability of screens so hard to credit. I spent my childhood ignoring everyone around me while reading – and being praised for it. There was little furore about my social skills or the deleterious effects reading was having on my cognition. I think the effects of burying your nose in a backlit screen are more similar to my own bibliophilia than technophobes presume.
I do, however, have a sentimental attachment to the printed word, and delight in the joy my son takes in his books, which is to say, a lot. He follows us around the house shouting, with great subtlety and refinement ‘READ A BOOK!’ before thrusting his chosen text into our hands and plopping down beside us. His tastes are informed by subject (yes to anything with vehicles, dinosaurs or sentient foodstuffs, no to anything featuring robots), but also by meter, since he loves the rhythm and pace of a book like The Gruffalo as much as its story. Perhaps this is why we sometimes find him with one of our paperbacks, perched upside down in his lap, pretending to read it by himself in the sing-song tones he’s memorised from one of his own, less adult tomes.
Reading to a small child is still one of parenting’s premier perks. The first few times, that is. I have nothing but admiration for Julia Donaldson, but I doubt any book was designed to withstand 15 recitations in a row, without its every syllable crumbling into a hateful, agonising chore. Some books have become such victims of their own success, they’ve been banned from our house entirely, since the eternal feedback loop of ‘again, again’ they induce means that opening them at all is akin to setting a 15-minute timer for a gigantic tantrum once you tell them you simply can’t do it any more.
If some books are stimulants, others are sedatives. He has a stack in his bedroom curated for their soporific qualities. When night comes, I reach for these drowsy old standards like Goodnight Bear, or Sleepy Baby, both of which are pretty much chloroform in print.
Last week, however, sabotage struck our little sleep library and my outstretched hand came upon other, more excitable material. Books in which sentient broccoli become race car drivers and dinosaurs learn about volcanoes, the sort of rousingly randomised children’s books that make you wonder how Spot The Dog ever earned an honest living. He’d wised up to our sleep scheme and, like some hucksterish inmate juggling his meds in an asylum, had furtively ferreted some other, more exciting books into the pile. My son laughed at his deception, knowing I’d be forced into reciting whichever book I pulled from the stack, which I immediately did, keeping him happy, enchanted and awake for another half-hour. He may not be fully literate yet, but he can read me like a book.
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