Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Reading Favorite Books from Childhood

I belong to a generation that often gets criticized for failing to put aside childish things (Disney films are the most frequently cited example), but in fact there is a perfectly legitimate reason that we are reluctant to do so. Most likely, more than one. By retaining the books (or films, or music, etc.) that fired our imaginations in childhood, we are able to retain, at least a little, the sense of endless possibility, illimitable transformation, and transcendent expansion that is only really possible before we become familiar with the horrific realities of the world in which we live. And, as technology advances and we become ever more connected, we see these atrocities occurring in real time and they feel closer and more threatening than they possibly could have when news arrived days, weeks, even months after the events. How can we counteract the existential crisis, the paranoid terror, the overwhelming despair that inevitably assail us as we watch beheadings, airstrikes, devastating floods and tsunamis, the fallout from nuclear disasters, terrorist attacks, the piles of bodies resulting from all these horrors and epidemics?

Perhaps, returning to the innocent pleasures of my childhood is nothing more than a selfish escapism. I don't discount that possibility. Perhaps, these books merely serve to nullify what I've been reading in the newspaper. Perhaps, I'm simply immature and not willing to let go of childish things. Without dismissing any of these possibilities, I do believe that these books, most free from violence, injustice that goes unpunished, and despair, can serve a more profound purpose.

It's not that there isn't terror and rage within these stories. They are there, but in the form in which we experience them as children. In L. M. Montgomery's Magic for Marigold, her young heroine experiences such unspeakable fear when she confronts a large, barking dog that she loses faith in God, while in Emily of New Moon, Emily nearly dies of terror when she mistakes a family of owls in a chimney for a malignant ghost. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox throws fits of rage whenever her will is challenged, smashing her mother's favorite keepsake and kicking her caregivers. In E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Fern must be separated from her beloved pet pig, Wilbur, that she saved from slaughter. Terrible things are possible in the universes of these stories: loved ones die, homes burn down, people get hurt, promises are broken, friendships end. The difference is in degree. The horrors are bearable, endurable. Marigold can discover the dog is just enthusiastic to make friends, and Mary can lose her rage when her feeling of abandonment and neglect is conquered by friends and new interests. And even where hurt remains, healing is in the ascendant.

From an adult perspective, many of the fears and stings of childhood are laughable, but to shrug them off as mere nonsense is to forget that these horrors loom large in the child's miniature world, just as our horrors loom large in our expanded, complicated, and far less enticing world. (And I do realize that in talking of the child's world, I'm talking of the safe child's world; one of the most sickening of our adult horrors is that many children are forced to face the same atrocities.) In Magic for Marigold, a very wise adult says, "It is such a pity that she will lose [the wonderful gift of creation] as she grows older - that she will have to forgo its wonder and live, like us, in the light of the common day." The inevitable consequences of growing up, the narrowing of our imaginative realms (conjured so brilliantly in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story), and the loss of the almost supernatural power of making believe, are not simply the trade-off for adult pleasures, responsibilities, and control; these costs, these casualties to time, forever diminish our capacity for fantasy, and with it, our capacity to transform the self without mutilation or pain.

When I reread The Wind in the Willows, the first chapter book that my mother read to me as a child, I'm not pretending to be a child again, but rather accessing, in my limited adult way, that capacity for fantasy. The chapter in which Rat and Mole find Otter's missing son in the care of the god Pan, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," is one of the most profound pieces of prose I have encountered in my years of reading and it only grows in stature with each perusal. What precisely Pan's music means remains somewhat mysterious to me, just as it does to Rat and Mole, but Pan's joyous, terrifying wildness, too savage for us civilized mortals to remember for long, is perhaps that wild, limitless song that we hear as children and that fades as we become integrated into the adult world, with its limits and injustices. Even if we hear only the faint echo, it can recall a state that may not be free from violence or fear but that is utterly boundless and thus ever-hopeful.

And that is precisely what these books provide: a reminder of hope. Wilbur may be headed for the farmer's axe, but with intelligence, friendship, and perseverance, he can hope to live a long and contented life. Though Rose Campbell of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins has been orphaned, she can hope to find a new home and loving family with her uncle, aunts, and cousins. Even in the darkest of children's books, like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Shere Khan can be defeated and the objects of his predation saved, though at a price. It is easy, as adults, to become lost in hopelessness and cynicism because our adult problems are so complex, so overwhelming; on the other side of the coin, blank optimism is not so much hopefulness as a steadfast blindness to what cannot be easily or comfortably resolved. In the best children's literature, the darkness is as present as the light, but whether the dark or light wins the day, these stories exist in universes of possibility and creativity, that is, the base ingredients of any good solution.

As the Happy Lion observes, in Louise Fatio's brilliant picture book, "People are foolish, as I begin to see." We are too closed, too hemmed in by the petrification of our stultifying creative power. If we open our minds to the stories that fired our childish brains and charted the realms of our imaginations, we access some of that boundlessness, that fantasy, that transcendent imaginative power, that can offer us both the openness that can lead to clearer thinking and more compassionate feeling and the hope that in grappling with these problems we may find panaceas. I sincerely hope, in any case, that this is so. If not, I have at least spent many pleasant hours deep in the perusal of these lovely stories and whether or not it has done me good, it has certainly done me no harm.

1 comment:

  1. Did you see this week's NYT Book Review (10/26)? There was a fascinating review of a book by Jean Thompson, and it hit upon many of the same points you have here. Great minds think alike! Here's the link, enjoy if you haven't already seen it: