Read in bed by revbean
In past years, getting the boys fully engaged in their school’s annual readathon has been a struggle. The temptations of LEGO sets, video games, and general goofing off, along with the time pressures of Scouts, swimming lessons, and various other organized activities, led to many battles over squeezing in extra reading time. This year, things are different.
It might just be that the start of the readathon coincided with their grounding from video games for some offense I can’t recall (Mom lays down the punishments; I just make sure they’re enforced). Or it might be that they’ve hit a sweet spot of reading ability, maturity, and access to the right books at the right time. In any case, it’s sleep that is getting the squeeze now: I find them reading far later into the night than I would like, but I also find it hard to lay down the law when they’ve got their noses buried between pages.
This reticence to enforce bedtime is partly because of personal history. When I was their age, in fourth grade, I went through a long phase of waking up at two in the morning to read. I hid under the blankets with a flashlight and a book, and in a couple months worked my way through all of the Hardy Boys books (at least through the first blue-spined series) and then launched into Tolkien. I was often bleary-eyed in the morning, and sluggish in the afternoon, but I couldn’t stay away from all those marvelous books.
Peter polished off The Hobbit last night, and is deciding between the Percy Jackson books or extending his stay in Middle Earth. Jack has been engrossed in the original Han Solo adventures: a little pulpier than Tolkien, but still good enough reading in my estimation. Discovering science fiction and fantasy at this age seems about right to me: it’s a good time for stretching the imagination, testing your possibilities, and dreaming of far-away worlds.
I’m not able to compete with the boys’ reading goals–projects, work, and chores make it hard for me to squeeze in as many pages as I’d like–but I’ve been in a science fiction world myself, Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. It’s an appropriate world from which to watch two boys struggling against sleep with books propped on their chests. Kress imagines a time when sleep has become optional, at least to those whose parents are willing to risk expensive and possibly dangerous gene therapy before their births. Without having to throw away so many hours to coma and hallucination, the children of “Beggars in Spain” can spend their hours engaged in Olympic sports, stock market trading, and deep mathematical study. Interestingly, in this Objectivist/libertarian world which Kress posits, none of the children seem to spend their extra time engaged in the waking dream of novels. Watching Peter read “The Hobbit” from my vantage point of reading “Beggars in Spain” makes me think of my favorite quip about adolescent reading:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
I’m glad that Peter has discovered Tolkien rather than Rand first. The world of “Beggars in Spain” is ruled by the myth of the “mutually beneficial contract”: if either side of the deal doesn’t gain as much as the other, then the contract is null and void. This ideology fuels the Sleepless children’s fantasies of seceding from the Sleeper society, and is also lurking behind much of the anti-government noise in the current U.S. political chatter. Tolkien, by contrast, posits a contract in which the terms are often far less than mutually beneficial, where indeed the hero (often a very unassuming and unlikely hero) is called upon to sacrifice much for a greater good. Had Ayn Rand written “The Hobbit,” Bilbo would never have left his comfortable hobbit hole: he’d have invested some of the Baggins wealth in gear for the dwarfs, perhaps, in return for a share of the dragon’s gold, but he would never have left without his walking stick and met elves, giants, and a skulking ring-bearer under the mountains. And don’t even think about slogging off to Mount Doom to toss away the most powerful artifact in the world: better to make a mutually beneficial contract with Sauron.
If I were one of the Sleepless, I think I’d spend the wakeful hours of the world’s slumbers with books. And that, perhaps, defeats the purpose, and is the reason that Kress’ Sleepless don’t: reading, especially reading a novel, is a state not unlike a dream. There is no time, there is no “here,” there is only the world that the words bring to magical and imaginative life. Our bodies crave real sleep so they can go about the business of repairing the damages of the day, but our minds and souls crave dreams for building new possibilities, and a book can be a pretty good substitute for the tangle of images our own brains conjure up.