Reduced to reading

Nesta "reading" Lord of the Flies at 8 or 9 months old.
Nesta “reading” Lord of the Flies at 8 or 9 months old.

A few weeks ago, I tried to join a conversation at a party. One of the participants had recently married somebody I’ve known for a long time and I was anxious to connect with him. After about ten minutes, I realized that these two men just wanted to talk to each other. So I got up to leave. That’s when the new acquaintance said, in a half-hearted tone, “Oh, we can talk about books eventually….”

The statement stopped me short.

Up to that point, we’d had maybe fifteen minutes of interaction, not including the ten minutes I’d sat there while he and the other man ignored me to continue their conversation. So his comment, which suggested the only thing I was interested in was books, was clearly something he’d heard from his new wife—someone who has known me for years and should know me a little better than that.

I’d been reduced to one interest: “books.”

Now, I love books, I’m not going to lie. I devour books the way chocoholics devour chocolate. From our limited interaction, it is clear that this man is not interested in books, a fact made blatantly obvious not only by him but by his son, who told me books were “boooorrrrrring.”

Sadly, this man doesn’t realize that because I’m interested in books, I can talk about lots of things besides books.

The reason I’m interested in books is because I’m interested in people. I’m interested in ideas. I’m interested in other cultures, in history, in politics, in religion, in scandal, in current events, in people’s pasts, in people’s current situations, in people’s futures. I’m interested in truth. I’m interested in problems that plague humanity. I’m interested in solutions to the problems that plague humanity. I’m interested in illness and disease, science and technology, literature and history, and even (yes!) sports.

In short, I’m interested in books because I’m interested in everything and everybody.

We could have talked about a lot of things. We could have even continued to talk about what he was talking about with the other person present, if they’d been willing to include me.

I went away saddened, not just because I’d been misrepresented by someone who has known me for close to a decade (although I’m not going to lie, that burned). But the main reason I felt sad was because it was another reminder of how many people aren’t interested in ideas. They aren’t interested in other cultures, other places, other time periods, the world. Books are only one place you can find out about those things, of course. But most people who are fascinated with the world like to read. And they can and do engage with another person who is likewise fascinated with the world.

I read to my 2-year-old son every day. Some days, we only read a few books. Some days, we read thirty or forty books (I’m not kidding). This past week, he’s been fascinated with a large, practically ancient (published in 1982) anthropological book I have, Ways of the Animal Powers by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell.

“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to a map of the world showing the migration patterns of ancient peoples. So we discuss how American Indians migrated across the Bering Strait to come to the U.S.

“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to a graph that shows the evolution of primates. So we discuss how man is closely related to the chimpanzee. We look at pictures of human skulls and chimpanzee skulls, at Neanderthal skulls, at Gorilla skulls. We talk about the differences in jaw shapes, in brain shapes, as well as similarities.

No, I do not think my 2-year-old is too young to talk about these things or to be interested in history or science. He’s asking about it, after all. He’s curious. He wants to know.

“That’s Africa,” he’ll say now when he sees a map, pointing to Australia. “We live there.”

“No,” I gently correct. “We live in North America.” And I’ll point to it. “That’s where we live. But this is Africa.” I’ll point to the continent of Africa. “We’re going to visit Africa this summer. We’ll see zebras, and giraffes, and lions. We’ll visit friends. Now that’s Australia.” I’ll point to the continent of Australia. “That’s where Bec and Pete and Matthew (friends of ours) are from.”

“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to photographs of ancient pictographs of the female form, made 15,000 years ago.

“That’s the figure of a woman,” I’ll say. “Don’t you see her stomach? And her nipples? And her thighs? What about her hair?”

Yes, we’re looking at the nude female form, carved into rock some 15,000 years ago. And talking about it.

We look at photos of modern Bushmen and their hunting practices. We look at the pictures of the Tasaday stone-age cave dwellers “discovered” in the Philippines in 1971 (which shows just how old this book is, as it was published before the controversy over whether they were a hoax or not). We look at statues and rock carvings and masks from tribal peoples around the world. We talk about what they are.

It’s a book, yes. And I’m glad he loves that book and all the many books we read together. But the reason I’m doing it is to open up the world for my son. We’ll go to some of those places together. He’ll travel to some of those places without me.

I feel sorry for children whose parents are only opening up the world of pop culture by only introducing their kids to video games, television, movies, social media, and ipads.

The riches I’m sharing with him are immeasurable. And it’s only one book. It happens to be the book he’s interested in this week. But next week, it’ll be something else. And I’ll get to explore something else with him.

A book is more than a book. What is wrong with our culture that so many people don’t realize that?

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