Joanne Otto

Author

Category: Reading

A Delightful Bequest

You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t a bibliophile—a lover of books. That fact inspires me to share with you a practice which, over many decades of family history, has multiplied our enjoyment of books many times over: reading them aloud together.

Most parents read aloud to their children before they learn to read for themselves, but I suspect that relatively few regularly continue to do so thereafter. I’m not sure my parents would have resumed reading aloud with my sister and me had we not found ourselves bereft of television (a blessing in disguise!) at the bungalow we lived in during our summer vacations. Our literary diet wasn’t all great literature. In fact, most of it was murder mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The important thing was that it drew the family together for our mutual enjoyment in a way that television simply couldn’t match.

After I married Steve (a bibliophile to the tenth power!) we soon began reading aloud to each other. It started, as I recall, when I read Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose” to him while he drove us upstate from New York City. (To my delight I discovered that, by looking up regularly, I could actually read in a moving vehicle without feeling queasy!) Before long reading aloud became a real treat for the two of us at the end of the day.

Then two sweet little daughters were added to the equation, and eventually reading became a family activity. Even after they were quite capable of reading for themselves, our family’s literary explorations transformed our evening meals into magical adventures as we happily plunged into Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”, C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia”, L.M. Montgomery’s entire Anne of Green Gables series, Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” and, of course, anything in print about Tolkien’s wonderful hobbits, to name just a few. I can still hear the girls rhythmically chanting “Read on –yeah! Read on—yeah!” as they pounded on the dinner table when there was an overly long pause from the reading to insert and chew a bite of food.

Later we began on some of the classics such as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Jane Eyre.” If the story was fast approaching its climax when we finished dinner, sometimes we’d follow our daughters upstairs and read on while they got ready for bed. We just couldn’t wait to see how things would finally turn out.

Years later, when we were blessed with two grandsons who lived close enough to join us for dinner at least once a week, we had the joy of reading with them many of the books we had read with their mom as well as a host of new ones. We were just getting into “Great Expectations” when the frequent visits ended, but somehow the book has remained in our kitchen drawer even though any great expectations of resuming its reading have long since evaporated. Happily, the closeness forged with our daughters and grandsons over that dinner table has not!

When we look back over our parenting and grandparenting years, there are things we’ll admit we could probably have done better, but the choice to read aloud to the following generations is one we’ll never regret. To this day, reading together again as a twosome remains a highlight of our day. History, biography, fiction, occasionally a taste of poetry—we’re pretty omnivorous when it comes to books as long as they’re well written and help us to expand our horizons. Of course, both of us read individually as well, but the books we read together have played an indispensable role in the joy and liveliness of our 50+-year marriage.

So, dear fellow bibliophiles, I wish for you not only books you enjoy reading but also someone you can enjoy reading them with. Reading is not necessarily a solitary activity. Inhaling the same ideas in the same setting brings folks together in a very special way. If you’re already on board with it, be sure to spread the word. And treat yourself to “The Reading Promise” by Alice Ozma, an enchanting memoir about a father who read to his daughter every night for almost nine years until she left for college. It will touch your heart and—sometimes—make you laugh.
Now that’s what I’d call a good read!

Tots and Books

Books can speak loudly. . .even to very young children. I don’t think I appreciated quite how much until our first child was a toddler. We’d been reading the story of Peter Pan in a Disney picture book. Her eye had been drawn to the picture of Tiger Lily, tied up by Captain Hook on a partly submerged rock as the tide was coming in. She pointed to it, and though she was not yet stringing words into sentences, the look of distress on her face said it all. I turned the page and showed her the picture of Tiger Lily happily dancing around a campfire. “See, honey,” I said. “The girl is okay.” But nothing I said seemed to ease her distress over the sorry fate of a fellow being.

The following morning, however, she made a beeline for the book as soon as her feet hit the floor. She opened it to the pitiable picture, pointed at it, turned to me and asked, “Girl okay?” I assured her again that she was indeed and again showed her the campfire picture. Her eyes lit up as she repeated, “Oh! Girl okay!”–this time as an affirmation. Her relief was palpable. And my respect for the depth of feeling a book can evoke–even in one so young–was kindled.

My Latest Hero

Good books have a wonderful way of sparking our interest in people we’ve known of but never really known. I’ve lived in New York near Grant’s Tomb and now live in St. Louis near Grant’s Farm. I knew Grant was the general most responsible for winning the Civil War and later President–though for me he was always obscured by the shadow of Lincoln.

Then along came Jean Edward Smith’s remarkable biography. After reading it, I am now–in spite of his habit of smoking cigars–an enthusiastic fan of Ulysses S. Grant. I actually enjoyed reading the war accounts, in which Grant’s brilliance and resourcefulness eclipsed even the appalling casualties. And I was delighted to learn that he shared my abhorrence of war, telling Bismarck, “I never went into the army without regret and never retired without pleasure.” During his presidency, he did everything in his power to keep the peace and held to his principles under intense political pressure. Yes, thanks to Smith, Grant is now among my heroes.

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