When I was a senior in high school, I finally gave in to the pressure and read Moby Dick. My dad had been nagging me to do so for years. I didn’t like it all that much. In fact, I had to force myself through the drier parts. (I just wasn’t that into whaling.) But when I finished it, I had the most thrilling feeling. It really had been an awesome book—even if I couldn’t put my seventeen-year-old finger on exactly what constituted that awesomeness. I wanted very much to talk about this book—to talk about the parts I did like, the parts that confused me, and the parts that put me to sleep. It was late (the ending had definitely not put me to sleep!), but my dad was still up, reading in the living room. I stumbled in, with that special drunkenness only literature can provide, and told him I’d finally finished The Whale. We talked. And talked and talked and talked. It was one of the most wonderful evenings I ever spent with my father.
And I was very happy to have read Moby Dick, even though I wasn’t particularly happy while reading it.
That’s the thing about books. Sometimes you read for pleasure and nothing more. Sometimes you read for something else. And that something else is mysterious and ineffable. How do you get anyone to read a book when you have to admit that it is a difficult read, not a page turner, sometimes annoying, and often impenetrable? This is especially difficult when the people you are trying to persuade are children.
“Harry Potter, it’s not, but you really should give it a try.”
“Why? Is it funny?”
“Not really, not in a way that you’d notice.”
“Is it exciting?”
“Oh yes! . . . in places.”
“Is it boring?”
“Eh, yeah, in a few spots.”
“So why should I read it?”
So at this point, you could answer honestly, and say, “It will enrich your life in some way that I can’t explain and you won’t understand, and it may be many years before the value of it really sinks in.” But if you do that, you might as well give up.
There are ways to pull this off, though, particularly when the literature you have in mind is less daunting than Melville. It’s really not unlike getting kids to eat vegetables. Start with small bites. And eat along with them. Read aloud to them some of the best bits of the books you want them to learn to love. Keep it short and sweet and don’t expect immediate results. Let them see your joy, but don’t pressure them to feel the same way. Talk about the books you love—without expecting them to love them, too. If they are the kind of people for whom literature is a solace and stimulant, they will eventually come around.
Is this how my dad did it? Not really. Oh he talked about literature all the time and often quoted his favorite passages. But the reason I read the books he loved was because what I loved most about him was his love of and excitement about books. It was one of the ways we bonded. So maybe the best way forward is to just love literature, love your children, and trust that one day they will meet.
Image: The Voyage of the Pequod from the book Moby Dick, painting by Everett Henry (1893–1961)