At just past seven months, your favorite thing to do with the books either your mother or I read to you nightly is still closing them. Because I’ve caught you occasionally staring at the pages or following my finger as it moves along the words, however, I thought now might be a good time to talk a little bit about why we read together.
You’ve spent most of your young life cooped up with us in our small Brooklyn apartment, first by felicity of generous leave policies and then by necessity amidst a pandemic. The world outside, which we gird up to face with our odd masks and anxious glances at people not observing social distance on our regular walking routes, must seem both fascinating and a little frightening.
Our books are a way to branch out from the routine, take you to different places and see different people, particularly people who don’t look like us or have the same U.S.-centric views and assumptions of how the world works. I also hope they’re a gateway into how the world could be, or should be, rather than how it is.
On one wall of our apartment, right above the shoe rack we must somehow secure in advance of your inevitable crawling, is a letterpress print of Maggie Smith’s ubiquitous 2016 poem “Good Bones.” It grimly lists the potential horrors of the world before the narrator notes that “I keep this from my children. I am trying/to sell them the world.” You can think of our reading time together as our opening pitch of the world to you.
Our reading is a family tradition that goes back at least to my maternal grandfather, your great-grandfather, a man who campaigned for civil rights in conservative suburban Long Island and lost every time he ran for office. Every night, he gathered his six children to hear him read a chapter from one book or another. In going through his possessions recently after my grandmother passed away, I found his parents’ and grandparents’ well-worn copies of the works of Shakespeare and stories from the Bible, bought from long-gone catalog stores in Pittsburgh during the 1870s. He was not a perfect father, but the importance of reading as a way of understanding the world that he instilled in his children has made its way to us, and now, hopefully, to you.
My father’s mother, your great-grandmother, with whom you share one of your names, raised him and his brother as a working white single mother in the segregated South during the upheavals of the fifties and sixties. I sense that she tried to keep her children shielded as best she could from what she saw as chaos, enrolling them in Jesuit schools and prioritizing their education above all else. She, too, was a complicated woman, a trailblazing attorney and devoted public servant with the prejudices of her coal country upbringing never fully abandoned. But she wanted her boys to do good in the world, and to raise good families of their own, and so she read to them whenever she could.
I have a wonderful role model in my own father of how to be a good dad, and I strive to mirror his quiet and selfless compassion for others in my own life. But when you came along, I realized I didn’t really know what fatherhood meant, day-in, day-out. You didn’t give me much of an option except to start somewhere, so I started here, with our books.
Last week, we took you to a Black Lives Matter protest, maintaining our social distance as best we could. We handed out water together. We stood on the perimeter closest to the maskless, smirking police officers who muttered “blue jobs matter” in response to a chant in support of black lives, as if a life and a job were somehow comparable. This is the way the world is. But whether on the street or through the pages of a book, I hope you grow up thinking that it should be more.
Chas Carey — Contributor
Chas Carey is an attorney, writer, and occasional actor. His work has appeared in several literary magazines, on the NPR show Live From Here, and at the long-running Hearth Gods reading series in New York City. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
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*The views expressed in contributor posts are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf.