To Read, To Think; Perchance To Grow

Bedside Reading
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Mine was not an extraordinary childhood. It was in many ways idyllic: car trips in the summer to Wisconsin, the Statue of Liberty, Six Flags; weekend visits to small towns; the smell of bran, oats, and barn; pony and bike rides; apples in September and snow on Christmas Eve. It was a childhood I wanted to recreate for my own children; a reality reflected and fashioned by the conventions and happy endings I found in books.

But books have always surrounded me, forming a landscape both topographical and intellectual. They are portable keepsakes, one of few constants in my moves from country to country. One possession that has not lost its way is A Time For Old Magic, a collection of fairy tales compiled by Chicago educator and critic May Hill Arbuthnot. It sits in my father’s house, dusty but safe. Its permanence there is a source of comfort to someone who moves often.

My need to travel and live in different places reflects the explorations and visitations my mind makes when I read. Whenever I tell myself that studying the Great Books is “for fun” I undermine the value of reading – not as a hobby, but as vital to our growth as human beings.

By the end of last week, I had read Hamlet four times. Besides the fact that finals are in five weeks, close reading has revealed themes that go beyond most classroom interpretations. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Society still debates over what’s right and wrong; the relative goodness of people; the flaws in even the best intentions, and the moral ambiguities that challenge our governments.

This week I’m rereading Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet. I’d stopped reading fairy tales for a long, long time. I know most of the happy endings by heart. Only now I’m seeing the darker themes beneath the stories of faerie enchantment and knights. I started thinking about compromises driven by gender, institutions like marriage and religion, and how tradition still shapes the thinking of even the most advanced cultures.

So I read and relearn how to think. Perchance to dream, but more importantly to grow.