Tag Archives: reading

Building A Book Nut

My five-year-old daughter is in a weird place as a reader. She’s reached the point where she can sound out letters and read some of the words that her brain already recognizes, but she hasn’t figured out the rules for letter combinations. For example, she doesn’t know that anytime she sees “oo” it sounds similar to “moon” or “look” or “good” — she still tries to interpret each “o” on its own rather than as a phonetic grouping; except, she has “moon” down as a sight word, so everytime I see her stumbling on the “oo” in something else, I remind her of the “oo” in “moon.”

That’s one example of letter combinations. She still doesn’t have “sh” or “ch” or “ee” or “ea.”

With that being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the only word she stumbled on while reading the first sentence of the above paragraph was “one.” She wouldn’t have much trouble with “combinations” — well, maybe with the “ti” part.

Anyway, the point is that, when it comes to reading a book to her, we’re at a weird transition stage.

She doesn’t yet like chapter books. She can sit quietly and be interested for the length of a few chapters and she can correctly answer basic comprehension questions (though definitely not all of them), but what she can’t really do is sustain a book over the course of a few nights. By the third night, her brain has checked out and she’s moved on.

She loves books though. Not as much as she loves television, and probably not as much as she loves dancing, but she does love books.

But what I’d like to do is get her over the next hump as a reader.

I know she’ll get there, so I’m not worried about it at all, and I could write this same piece about her video-game playing skills, her skiing skills, her conversational skills, and her sense of empathy. Being five years old means having another hump to get over in pretty much all facets of your life.

But this isn’t about that. It’s about trying to imagine a book that would be right for her right now, when she’s in this weird space.

It’s not just about her reading skills either. As much as she loves books, she doesn’t yet love reading, and that’s something that’s kind of an unconditional requirement for being the child of my wife and I. We need this girl to love reading because, if she doesn’t, our lives as adults who love to read will be compromised — she’ll demand our attention rather than finding quiet joy in a book, like us.

Anyway, she needs to love reading, so the last thing I want to do is make it feel like a chore. I want to give her the opportunities to read, expose her to as many words as possible, and then let her discover the joy of it in her own time.

But again, it’s not just about her reading skills. It’s also about the depth of the ideas she can comprehend. She’s in a weird space here, too. For the last three years, since she really started to speak, I have tried to talk to her in the same way I talk to all of my students, minus some of the swear words and sarcasm. When she asks me a question, she knows she’s going to have a lot of information coming at her and that not all of it she’ll be able to understand. But she also knows that she can ask me what I mean, and I’ll try to explain it again, using different (and not always simpler) words.

My wife talks to her much the same way (though better-er, because she’s a better teacher than I am). Except for Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, we’ve never really shied from telling her the unvarnished truth. While this has led to her possessing an unflappable concern about the fate of humanity when it comes time for the sun’s inevitable explosion, as well as semi-regular exhortations about her not wanting me to die when she’s an adult, it has also led to serious and deep conversations about a wide variety of topics where her line of questioning revealed not only her ability to comprehend a topic but to also synthesize it with some other experience in her life and then apply it later in a different conversation.

What kind of book do you read to a kid like that?

She’s not picky. Some of her favorite books focus on underpants, and nothing makes her laugh harder than a poop joke. But she also likes to look at atlases and ask questions about the various cultures. She traces her fingers over the drawings in a children’s book on evolution, asking relaxed but pertinent questions about our grandmother the fish. She knows the names and could even recall some of the details of Ahab and Queequeg, thanks to a young reader’s edition of Moby Dick.

But she can’t stick with a book longer than a few nights. She might know Ahab and Queequeg, but her interest didn’t last long enough for her to meet the white whale himself.

She doesn’t enjoy books without a lot of pictures. She’ll listen to them, but she doesn’t enjoy them, not in the same way. She needs something to focus on if she’s to keep her body still.

I’m looking for a book that is long enough to last three or four nights, but that also includes rich and detailed illustrations.

Essentially, a graphic novel for five year olds.

But it has to be more “read-aloudable” than most graphic novels. Graphic novels tend to follow the format of comics, with two or more speech bubbles on a page, making it difficult for the reader to signal to the listener when one speaker stops and another starts.

I also want her eye to move in a more linear fashion than what you normally find in a graphic novel, where each page is divided into frames and the eye is subjected to the talents of a graphic designer.

I don’t want to teach her the grammar of the graphic novel. Not just yet. That grammar definitely has its place, but I don’t think she’s there yet. She still needs to train her eyes and her brain to operate linearly (not too linearly of course, hence all the dancing).

The book I’m looking for would move from page to page, not frame to frame, and its words would flow in the same way, making a clear connection between each set of words and their attendant picture. It would be a book where the pictures almost wouldn’t need the words and where the words almost wouldn’t need the pictures, but where, because they exist together, deeper connections can be made than if each existed alone.

But it’s gotta be about something, and it’s gotta be about that thing in a novelistic (and hopefully non-pedantic) way. I want her to love the book the way I loved my first favorite books, the ones that I couldn’t put down and yet were too long for me not to put down. I want her to be eager for her mother or I to pick it up and read it to her, so eager that when we can’t, she sneaks upstairs to her bedroom to read it to herself, because she just can’t wait to return to the world of the book.

So it has to have words she can read or recognize on her own and drawings to enrich her understanding of how those words and ideas work together. It is has to have a story whose twists and turns she can’t yet imagine for herself, and a theme whose depths will set fire to her soul.

If she’s to escape upstairs and read it to herself, her curiosity for what comes next and what it all might mean will have to stoked to the nth degree; otherwise, her brain will find itself returning to the sensory bath that is modern children’s television.

So where the eff is that book?

Reading Christ Without Faith

I am an atheist, but I read a lot about Christianity. I don’t read a lot of books about Islam (though I have read some), nor do I read about Judaism (though, again, I have read some); nor about Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Shinto (though again, I have read some).

Christianity. That’s mostly what I read about.

The reason seems simple: I was raised as a Catholic in the suburbs of Boston. How Catholic? Well, not only was I baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, but I volunteered as an altar boy, and on Saturdays, I worked as a receptionist for my parish’s monsignor. I also played basketball for and went on overnight field trips with my local Catholic Youth Organization. Parish priests came to my house for dinner on more than one occasion, and I considered them (and still consider them) my friends.

A Hindu pandit, on the other hand, has never passed me the green beans, nor has a Buddhist monk. I wasn’t raised on the banks of the Ganges or at the base of Mt. Fuji. Yes, I did grow up in a town that felt at least half Jewish, and yes, I attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and yes, I broke bread at least half a dozen times with a rabbi, and yes, I would argue that one can’t really read about Christianity without also taking in a fair share of Judaism, but even when I read about Judaism, I usually do so as one who is there to find Catholicism.

(Just as a side note: Maybe the best book I’ve ever read on religion and spirituality explores Judaism through a conversation with the Dalai Lama; it’s called The Jew in the Lotus, and I can’t recommend it enough.)

I guess what I’m wondering is, why? Why my fascination with Catholicism? Is it really as simple as, “Because that’s how I was raised?”

I hope not.

I mean, of course it is — it absolutely is — but I also want it to be more than that.

First, I’m fascinated by the politics of it all. Back in high school, I was introduced to the fact that after Jesus died, his brother James the Just became the leader of the apostles, sharing power with Peter and John (“James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars [of the Jerusalem church]” {Galatians, 2:9}). Then along comes Paul, a former hunter of Christians who never met the living Jesus, proclaiming that he knows Christ’s message better than those men who walked beside Him during His ministry and witnessed Him in His resurrection (“And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me” {Galatians, 2:6}).

The difference between what Paul preached and what the Jerusalem church preached was wide. Paul preached what we now consider the Christian message: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians, 13:13). But the Jerusalem church must have preached something entirely different.

Remember, the Jerusalem church was a recognized band of fundamentalist revolutionaries whose politically assassinated leader called for a new definition of all that was held holy. James, himself, was enough of a nuisance to be stoned to death by Jerusalem’s high priest, an act that came not only from the early church’s ministry but also from the newly appointed high priest’s desire to make a big splash early in his career (he failed; his rash decision to murder a man whose epithet was “the Just” didn’t play well with the crowd, and the priest was quickly removed from office).

While we don’t know exactly what the Jerusalem church called for, the epistle of James differs from the epistles of Paul in that a) James does not refer to Jesus as the Son of God (he barely refers to Jesus at all), while most of what Paul writes ultimately finds its reasoning in the divine nature of Jesus Christ; and b) Paul writes that a person can be saved by faith alone, while James argues forcefully that “faith without works is…dead” (James 2:26).

These are two major differences. For Paul, Christianity’s validity comes from its revelation via the divine Lord, and its saving grace comes from the believer’s faith in that divinity. For James, however, Christianity is not a faith, per se, but a way of life, revealed by the prophets and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ is the law. For James, Jesus demonstrated the law.

The history of that argument is fascinating to me, especially since Paul’s argument was victorious and yet James’ argument feels more sound. Add on history’s iconoclastic takedown of all that the layman believes about Yeshua ben Yosef, and it’s easy to understand my fascination with the politics and the history.

Second, I’m fascinated by the theology. Christianity is the only major religion that declares God’s descension to the mortal realm (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John 1:14). Judaism and Islam both declare their truths through the Word of God, as revealed by the prophet(s), but God remains fundamentally separated from the human, an abstract notion when He’s not communicating through a burning bush or an angel.

Hinduism’s concepts of the Atman and Brahman might allow an interpretation that comes close to Christianity’s God in the flesh, but Hinduism (like Shinto) is fundamentally polytheistic, so even if we stretched the metaphor in friendship, it would ultimately have to collapse in foolishness.

Both Taoism and Buddhism are godless religions (in the best sense of that phrase), so while the wisdom of the universe may be obtained there, that wisdom itself is never embodied the way John and Paul tell us that Jesus embodied God’s Word.

So that’s pretty ballsy, from a theological perspective.

Third, I’m fascinated by the message of it. I don’t know what Yeshua ben Yosef actually preached in the backwaters of Galilee in the first century CE, but I know over the next two thousand years, his disciples developed a rich and wise account of how a human ought to live: with faith in the future, hope for those among us, and love in our heart. I can get on board with that.

Fourth, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of its most avid devotees. I’m not talking about right-wing Christians who proclaim that Jesus wanted us all to get wealthy and to hate fags and communists and to arm ourselves against Islamic jihad. I’m talking about actual saints and Popes, the individuals who seem to believe with all of their heart and yet who also seem to stray from the path their Lord revealed to them  (I’m a fiction writer and reader, and thus a sucker for complex characters).

So yes, the reason I read so much about Christianity is because — without a doubt — I was born and raised a Catholic; but it’s also more than that. It’s a fascination with history, theology, morality, and humanity.

And those are topics in which my lack of faith still feels justified.