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My Son Quit Reading, But Not Soon Enough

29/03/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Books on a bookshelf.

Every time I walk into my son's room, my eyes inevitably and instinctively go to his empty bookcase.

Four years ago, at his request, we packed all the books away. All the British authors -- Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare -- and all the American authors -- J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain -- were gone, packed away with other classics.

"I'm done reading," he had told his dad and me.

Everyone has moved on from his decision, except me, the reader and the writer in the family. From time to time, I will bring up new books on Amazon. No luck.

Recently, I bring up audio books to my son, Joshua Karan, a straight A student and a senior in high school.

The following is a conversation I have reconstructed.

"Now that you drive, you can hear books in the car," I told him.

"No Mom, I am never reading again," he said.

"And it's because of you. You made me read and read. One summer you set a goal of 100 books," he added indignantly.

"'Were you a fat kid? What kind of home life did you have? Did you have friends? These were the questions I got. Nobody reads in America,' he said emphatically."

"That was bad?" I asked.

"Mom, normal people don't read about elves and goblins, strange fairies running around in magical woods with painted mushrooms and odd creatures. None of my friends ever did," he explained.

It had done nothing for his social status, he let me know.

"Were you a fat kid? What kind of home life did you have? Did you have friends? These were the questions I got. Nobody reads in America," he said emphatically.

I sighed.

And then he leaned in and said in a stage whisper.

"I think Blyton was smoking something. She had hallucinations."

I stare at him, open mouthed.

"And if that wasn't bad enough you read about Oliver Twist and David Copperfield . Those orphans in the British system, they never had enough food, got whipped, worked in factories and had miserable lives," he said.

Then he explained, it just went downhill from there.

"You graduated to reading about sociopaths plotting to murder prominent political figures and the Kings of England."

He referred to Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesaras examples.

"At night, I couldn't sleep. I was haunted by these mentally ill people, ghosts, bloodied daggers, assassination plots."

I asked why he never said anything.

"I did. You quoted to me from Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade: 'Theirs is not to reason why, Theirs is not to make reply, Theirs is but to do and die.' Like the 600 soldiers ordered to fight I had no choice."

" 'I didn't need all that info Mom and I routinely lay awake at night thinking of jeering mobs in Paris, the murdering of British commoners, I imagined Blyton's elves creeping around the room,' he shuddered dramatically."

"What else do you remember?" I asked him, genuinely interested.

"'The horror, The horror' screamed Joseph Conrad's character as he died in The Heart of Darkness. And then Victor Hugo's hunchback, that outcast, who sat on top of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and watched the city at night."

"Quasimodo and when Disney made a movie, you already knew that story," I told him proudly. "I wanted to teach you about cruelty and stupidity. People chose Quasimodo to be the Pope of fools, crowned him, paraded and mocked him but they couldn't take the purity of his soul away."

He did the eye roll.

"I didn't need all that info Mom and I routinely lay awake at night thinking of jeering mobs in Paris, the murdering of British commoners, I imagined Blyton's elves creeping around the room," he shuddered dramatically."I slept badly."

"Books take you to other worlds, they teach you stuff, enrich your imagination and show you different facets of life," I argued.

"Or make your blood run cold. Strike terror in your heart, a state 'to be or not to be,'" said my brilliant son (who is totally a genius but then I am biased).

Example?

"'By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,' is an indication that things will never end well."

"It's meant to teach you that all the world's a stage' and sometimes evil can rule temporarily but good always triumphs. Therefore, God is greater than Satan."

"I did not get that impression from John Milton's devil." 'Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,'" Josh said.

He alleged I painted a bleak, dark gloomy picture of life.

He quoted from Mathew Arnold. "...Let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems, to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, and we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night. "

"'Words make a person. Words can take away pain, offer solace. Words in a sermon in church sway people, melt people, everything in life is words. I so wanted you to have words,' I pleaded."

He paused. I clapped with awe and delight.

"You still remember that whole thing," I said smiling. "What else you got?"

"...Life is but a shadow, a poor fool who struts and frets his time on stage, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," he recited dramatically.

"Wow? You were really listening," I said.

Fuelled by my praise, he continued: "I remember bits and pieces, an imagery like "the sun dips like the top of an orange into the wine red sea. And grammar, personification, adjectives, obsolete words that no one uses anymore but you used to routinely say them," he says. "It was simply too much."

"Words make a person. Words can take away pain, offer solace. Words in a sermon in church sway people, melt people, everything in life is words. I so wanted you to have words," I pleaded.

My son faced me and barrelled on like a seasoned defence attorney.

"And yet Mom, you always say this, 'I sometimes hold it a half a sin to put in words the grief I feel, for words like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within,'" he recited for me.

I cite his high marks in English throughout his school career. His essays that were admired and read out in class. If you read, you can write better. It will help you in college, in your career and your life.

He shrugged. "I live in the age of social media. We all express ourselves adequately enough. Those old works, they don't belong in the real world. You have to live life and find a way to just say it."

But, I pointed out that reading gave him an edge.

"It also gave me a distorted unrealistic view of life," he said.

"Come on," I argued. "Books were fun, beginning with the fairy tales, like Goldilocks and The Three Bears."

He cracked up.

"No Mom, that little blonde kid was a psycho. She committed a number of crimes. Harassment, breaking and entering, burglary, destruction of personal property and causing emotional distress. In today's world, she would be in a home for juvenile delinquents," he noted, ticking off each offense with his fingers.

I gaped and then recovered quickly.

"Sir, you have in fact proved admirably well for the jury, reading makes you question, analyse, think and learn. Therefore, in conclusion reading is crucial. So, will you please reconsider your decision to abandon books, so help me God, "I implored.

My mathematically inclined son, about to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering, looked me in the eye.

"No Mom. The deed is done."

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