You start when he is two months old, you know it is important. All the experts say so, all the articles. Read to them, read to them incessantly. Do it early, the earlier the better. He seems like an alert baby, this one, wide-eyed and curious. The way he bats at his toys, the way he tracks your movements with a searching, soulful expression. Maybe all babies are like this, you aren’t sure. He is your first. You project onto him constantly—thoughts, feelings, skills—as if projecting will make it so.
Your mother sat with him when he was one week old, just home from the hospital, a sliver of a thing, and read him Pat the Bunny in that special sing-song voice you remember well from your own childhood. “Judy can pat the bunny,” she said, as your son stared into the middle distance, head lolling. “Now YOU pat the bunny.” She took the baby’s starfish hand, the nails still peeling from the wetness of the womb, and rubbed it purposefully against the fluffy bunny. And you couldn’t tell if it was ridiculous or adorable to be reading to a baby so new.
All the same, a couple of months later, you decide it is time to begin. Every night, every night without fail. Your husband gives the baby a bath, and then you coo at him, a steady stream of chatter as you stuff limbs into a sleepsuit covered with teddybears or rockets or stripes. You prop him up against you on the bed and read two books. Always two. Sometimes Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Sometimes Here Are My Hands. Sometimes you channel your mother and read Pat the Bunny with just the right intonations. You take it for granted that your son sits still at this age, that he tolerates the books without crying, when what he really wants is his milk. None of your other children will be so patient.
By the time he is one, he can pat the bunny on his own. He seems to understand you now, he has words himself, a bevy of animal sounds and an assortment of other babbles that mean something, finally. The floodgates of communication have opened; reading has become blissfully interactive. Your son loves books. You tell your family, your friends, anybody who will listen: “He loves books!” This makes you proud, as if it is evidence of an impressive feat of parenting or genetics. But of course he loves books, the shelves are lined with them, the house is strewn with them. Reading is your go-to childcare activity.
Over the next couple of years, your son becomes oddly interested in history. Or maybe it’s not so odd because you and your husband are both academics with a flair for the past. The chunky board books give way to early readers, to thinner pages telling tales of the Romans, the Greeks. But the Egyptians are his favorite. He loves the concept of mummies, he traces the Sphinxes with his still-dimpled finger. He becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, how Anakin Skywalker changed from good to evil. You read him endless books about it. He becomes obsessed with Jesus, even though you are Jewish, and you read him endless books about that too.
At some point, it is clear he is ready to read himself, but you don’t want to push it. Your instinct is that this process, this magical process, should happen organically. You talk about the alphabet with a concerted nonchalance, calling the letters by their phonetic names, because you are in the UK and this is how it’s done. M is not “em,” it is “mmmm,” as if the letter itself is edible, is utterly delicious. Your son is getting the gist of it, it’s a game to him. You, however, are newly overwhelmed by the mischievousness of the English language. Its absurd rules feel, all of a sudden, like inhospitable guests. So many exceptions, so many outliers. He can read “hat,” but how do you explain “hate”?
You breathe a sigh of relief when he starts school, that children go to school earlier where you live, and that you can pass off the task of explicating the idiosyncrasies of language to a trained professional. Your son comes home excited about the magic E, the way it makes the sound of the preceding vowel change, poof, just like that, and you think to yourself: thank god. He reads to you happily now, always out loud, in that halting, robotic voice most kids have at the beginning. When punctuation is optional, when the concept of “reading with expression” is a peak in the distance.
And then it happens. He starts to read fluidly and in his head to boot. It opens up a new world for him, an inner world. But it closes a door for you. His reading is a personal thing now, a private thing, he wants it that way. He is somewhere between six and seven, you can’t quite remember. You remember, though, that he read the whole series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid in quick succession, which left you considering what exactly he understood of the middle school dynamics. He is at that awkward age where his technical skill surpasses his emotional maturity and you are not quite sure what books to choose for him.
He likes to read, but he likes other things too. You can’t tell yet if he loves it, if he drinks in the words like you do, if reading is going to be that balm for what ails him, though you recall you weren’t a particularly keen reader at this stage either. He doesn’t seem to read to get tangled in the story, to step outside of himself. His penchant is for nonfiction still, for facts, for science. He pores over statistics in his football magazines. He studies up on Minecraft.
Just when you wonder if he will ever get the taste for fiction, he discovers The Hunger Games. He returns from the bookstore, clutching the first in the series, and he can barely stop to say hello as he marches up the stairs to crack into it. He becomes, almost overnight, what people call an “avid” reader. He devours young adult sci-fi, the more dystopian the better, while you fleetingly deliberate if the subject matter is too old for him. He asks to read The Fault in Our Stars. You hold him off. He asks to read It by Stephen King. You hold him off again. He picks up the books on your night table and inspects the blurbs; Station Eleven catches his eye. For the first time, you borrow one of his books and you actually enjoy it.
Your son is nine, closer to ten. You lie on your bed together, it is late afternoon. He stretches out on one side, and you are on the other side, the only sound between you is the pages turning. You reach across and take his hand. He squeezes back, not meeting your eyes, so engrossed is he in the story. You watch him for a second, resting your own book on your lap. He is long limbs and angular features, but just for a moment you get a flash of the baby he used to be, and it is Pat the Bunny in his pudgy hands all over again.