Saturday, June 11, 2016

Grumpy old readers?

From a discussion on how we read as we age:

One of the hardest things to remember about childhood, unless you are fortunate enough to spend time around a child, is the fact that, for many children, the line between reality and the imagination is thinner and more porous than it is for most adults. When a 4-year-old talks to her mermaid doll, she is talking to a mermaid. I remember inspecting my cereal bowl for the tiny gremlins that set off the mini-explosions that went snap, crackle and pop. The child who opens the cover of a Dr. Seuss book is not just reading the first page but entering a world populated by grotesque but giddily good-humored creatures.

The age at which I fell most passionately in love with reading, at around 9 or 10, roughly coincided with the time when I somehow sensed that the reality-­fantasy border was about to tighten — and perhaps close forever. My desire to continue to live in my imagination contributed to my love for fairy tales and myths, the most fanciful genre. Among my favorites were “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a collection of Norwegian tales with marvelous illustrations by Kay Nielsen, and a volume of Greek myths, which I still own. I also loved books, preferably by authors such as E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, in which children discover a garden or find a magic object or take the hand of a governess — and enter a parallel world in which wishes can be granted. Reading those books, I was those children, their wishes were my wishes. I wanted to recreate, in a shoe box, the miniature domesticity of “The Borrowers.” There’s a chapter in “Mary Poppins,” “John and Barbara’s Story,” about babies who forget how to speak to a starling when they get older. Even then, I sensed it was telling me something dire — something the grown-ups either didn’t know or wouldn’t admit — about what I was going to lose.

Like everything else, the way we read changes with time and age. The books I find engrossing now still have the power to make the world around me vanish. But I can’t inhabit them as I did with my childhood favorites. I love rereading “Middlemarch,” but I never imagine I live there. Not for a heartbeat do I think I’m Karl Ove Knausgaard.

A neurologist friend says that adults are likelier than children to cross-­reference when they read, to compare people and things in a book with people and things they know, which is why an adult reading experience may be a “dip” compared with the child’s “soak.”

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