Column: Words on a page can provide the perfect getaway

11/15/2010 3:17 PM |

As a child, I loved to read and was often praised for being an avid reader, and yet I was also often admonished for reading too much. I was always being told to stop reading and play with my little sister and brother; stop reading and go outside and get some fresh air and exercise; stop reading and come to the table to eat — no you may NOT read at the table; stop reading and go to sleep. First grown-ups want you to learn to read, and then they get in your face telling you when it’s OK to do it.
The other morning, I found myself being really annoying to a grandchild who was reading when I was trying to get him and his little brother to school on time. When I heard my own voice, I cringed and then apologized. Luckily, I don’t think I inflicted too much psychic damage. He was too busy reading to have really registered either the annoying part or the apology.
That is one of the ways reading works in families. The readers might physically inhabit the same space as the rest of the family, but they’re not really there. They are in the space of the story. They prefer the company of some made-up characters to yours. You can have hurt feelings if you want, but it probably won’t change anything. Readers negotiate the shoals of family life with an air of preoccupation and an escape clause. They can always pick up their book and disappear.
One reason we want children to learn how to read is so they’ll leave us alone. The other night, I was explaining to a young friend that since I had read him Anne Rockwell’s ‘At the Firehouse’ two times in a row, now he could sit on my lap and turn the pages quietly all by himself while I talked to his mother for a few minutes. That way he’d be reading to himself like a big boy by looking at the pictures and remembering the story in his head. He fell for this ruse hook, line and sinker and we grown-ups had a few moments of uninterrupted conversation. It was sweet, but of course, in a few years, he will be busy actually reading while we grown-ups are berating or cajoling him to talk to us, finish his dinner, pay attention, tie his shoes. He will have an air of preoccupation and an escape clause.
Reading with two other children on a rainy November afternoon went from the ridiculous to the sublime. First my granddaughter read aloud to me and her younger brother. She read most of Dav Pilkey’s ‘Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future’ and then, because it was so terrific and I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I read the rest. Dav Pilkey is most famous for the “Captain Underpants” series, which put him right up there on lists with Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, Stephen King and Maurice Sendak.
Pilkey is a bit like Dr. Seuss on Ritalin, with the grosser body fixations of the average 6-year-old. Each chapter has at least one “Flip-o-rama” section, which is a low-tech version of a flip book in which two pages, flipped quickly, supposedly give the illusion of action. Cavemen punch each other, things explode, a baby dinosaur has motion sickness. While I was reading aloud, both children worked on making their own Flip-o-rama drawings.
Then we all looked at a huge new art history book, ‘30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space,’ which debunks art historical classifications and hierarchies by presenting 1,000 masterworks of art in simple chronological order. It demonstrates what was being created all over the earth at the same time. Each work of art is on its own page, each is given equal weight. You find the Venus de Milo next to a mural from the Mayan civilization and Velasquez’ Las Meniñas next to a painting from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, an Indian jade wine cup, a ritual Nepalese plaque, a Korean portrait and Vermeer’s milkmaid. We made games of guessing what countries things were from by covering up the caption before turning the page (sort of the obverse of Flip-o-rama) and guessing what things were used for, or just saying which of two facing images we liked better — sublime games and a very sociable way of interacting with books and family members simultaneously.
Two books I read all by my unsociable self in the last few weeks both were set in Asia. Amy Tan’s ‘Saving Fish from Drowning’ is a long, ambitious book somewhat inspired by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in that it has 12 travelers embarked on a kind of contemporary spiritual pilgrimage. The all-knowing narrator is the unquiet ghost of the woman who had organized and was supposed to lead the trip to China and Burma, until her untimely demise.
At first, the book seems slow, because there are so many characters and a bit of explication is required to get all the narrative machinery set up, but when, having been promised a Christmas surprise, all but one of the tourists go off across a Burmese lake in boats with some tribesmen they know nothing about, things start happening fast. It is Tan’s skill that the things that happen can be very funny and at the same time unbearably sad. The privileged American tourists and the politically repressed tribal people of Burma have a perfect storm of mutual miscommunication, with some unexpected consequences.
‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ by David Mitchell is a wonderful, wonderful book. It takes place on the tiny man-made island of Dejima, toehold of the Dutch East India Company, in the harbor of Nagasaki in Japan in the late 1700s. I loved spending my time in the company of the characters — red-haired Jacob De Zoet, an ambitious but honest clerk; Orito Aibigawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai and a talented midwife; Dr. Marinus, misanthropic healer, teacher and musician; Abbot Enomoto, ageless evil incarnate; and Ogawa Uzaemon, heroic translator. I love a novel with a historical setting so unknown and exotic as to afford me a complete escape from my usual world. It’s not that my usual world isn’t a glorious place, but I have this habit of escaping, and why not escape to somewhere very, very far away?

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.