I just finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to my daughters.
The last time I read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel I was 14 or 15, and in all honesty I didn’t enjoy it much. I’d slogged through the book because I felt like I should read it as an educated person and aspiring writer. But at the time I was so impatient to get to the action—the trial of a falsely accused African-American man—that I had little patience for Scout and Jem’s childhood antics or their seemingly interminable efforts to lure Boo Radley out of his self-imposed house arrest.
After the publication of Lee’s newly discovered “Go Set a Watchman” and the ensuing media buzz about it, I was curious to give “Mockingbird” another try. Since the protagonist is a child, and since we’d recently read a number of other books that deal with race and the American South (“Huckleberry Finn” and the amazing books by “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” author Mildred D. Taylor), I thought the girls, who are 9 and 12, might be interested.
We sat down with the paperback copy I’d kept since high school, its crumbling acidic paper and yellow cover (thank you, shoddy 1970s and ‘80s book manufacturing standards) barely surviving the renewed attention. For a little over a week, we snuggled together in my 9-year-old’s bed, on subways and buses, and on a round trip train ride from New York to Pittsburgh, while I did my best rendition of a Southern accent.
This time I loved the book, and so did my daughters. The difference for me, other than my three decades of accumulated wisdom and maturity (I hope), was that I was reading the book aloud and sharing the experience with two of my favorite people.
When the girls were babies and my husband and I started reading to them, we never expected the practice to last so long. I figured we’d go through picture books and a few chapter books, but that by the time they were able to read on their own, they’d think being read to was too babyish.
Although my father and I read together for a period when I was 8 or 9—we took turns reading aloud chapters of Edward Eager’s “Half Magic” and several Roald Dahl books—I was a child of divorce, so the two of us were together only on vacations. For the most part, my childhood was marked by solitary reading, a generally pleasurable and engrossing (if occasionally lonely) activity.
However, while they also enjoy reading on their own, my kids have yet to show any interest in ending the communal reading—and I’m hoping they won’t for a while. Reading together has become one of my favorite family pastimes. It’s a bedtime ritual, but also a rainy-day-at-home activity, entertainment for long subway and bus rides (we don’t have a car), and a major component of our yearly vacation at a lakefront cottage in Maine. A few weeks ago, when my 9-year-old broke her arm and we had to spend hours in the hospital waiting for the bones to be set, our book made the long wait infinitely more bearable.
Although his longer work hours prevent him from doing it as frequently as I do, my husband also reads to the girls, his humorous voices and accents putting mine to shame. (Despite his New Hampshire origins, he’s particularly good at Cockney and Brooklyn accents.)
It’s not just the family togetherness and snuggling that I like, however. I find I enjoy reading more when I’m doing it with my kids. Reading aloud forces me to go more slowly and enables me to be more patient with long descriptions or rambling narratives. The double processing of the text—visual combined with aural—makes me pay closer attention, which in turn makes me absorb and remember the details better.
Plus, I get a chance to be an actress, an unfulfilled childhood dream due to my complete lack of talent, with a semi-captive audience.
Though I sometimes grumble about being tired or being “nothing more than a reading machine” when the girls nudge me to read or beg me to do “just one more chapter,” I love that they relish this activity so much. As a writer and book lover, it makes me happy that the girls and I have a body of literature that we share and can talk and reminisce about. Fortunately we tend to like the same things, and often when we’re doing something else, we draw parallels between something in the news or in our lives and a character or situation in one of the books we’ve read.
Although reading together has lasted far longer than I anticipated, I suspect we’re now in the final chapters, at least with my older one who is approaching the teens.
When we reach The End, I guess I will have to join a book club or volunteer at the library’s story hour or start reading aloud with my husband.
But we have a lot more books on the shelf that I’m hoping we can get to first.