Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good:
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow.
— William Wordsworth
As an infant, my son Benj was aloof and never wanted to cuddle with me, but if I read to him, he would snap to attention and listen avidly. He shunned toys and stuffed animals, preferring instead to surround himself with books. He sat in seas of them, slept with them clutched between his tiny fingers and paged through them endlessly. He’d memorize chunks of books or entire poems we read to him and recite them jubilantly. So when he began actually reading at 2, I was delighted: what endless hours of joy awaited him! I’d grown up with a writer father and a literary agent mother in a book-lined apartment and had been an early and passionate reader myself. An assistant professor of English at Yale, I devoted my life to reading, teaching and writing about literature. Of course my child loved books so much he lined his crib with them.
But when Benj was almost 3, he was given a diagnosis of a rare disorder called hyperlexia: the ability to read at an early age coupled with difficulty with social interaction and verbal communication, and typically, although not exclusively, found in children on the autism spectrum. I was devastated to learn that Benj’s fondness for reading and reciting literature, which I’d taken to be impassioned and profound, was, in fact, a symptom of his disorder.
“Reading as Symptom” (the title of a piece I read), “Reading Too Soon” (the title of the standard book on hyperlexia) — these were things I’d never thought possible. How could voracious reading be anything other than an expression of curiosity, engagement and love? But Web site after Web site told me that Benj’s reading was meaningless, mechanical, a “splinter skill,” an ability that occurs in isolation and has no relationship to the general level of functioning or quality of life of the individual. I was told that Benj didn’t understand what he was reading and that his reading was akin to hand-flapping or running in circles — a “self-stimulatory” activity. He reread books not because he loved them but because he “craved sameness.” His predilection for reciting lines of Robert Frost — “some say the world will end in FIRE!” — was unappreciative and unliterary. His use of quotations to describe his experience — a fragment of a Yeats poem to depict the night sky — was “echolalia,” mindless parroting. I was encouraged to redirect him away from reading/reciting and to think of his need to read as a problematic behavior.
But I knew that Benj’s reading was not merely symptomatic, and that it should not be dismissed as or reduced to a splinter skill. I took heart in Web sites that told me I could use Benj’s reading ability to help him develop appropriate behaviors, functional language and social connections. So we taught Benj proper responses to common questions by writing the questions and answers on note cards; his nursery-school teachers fostered his connection to other children by having him read books to the group or pass out name tags; we handled challenging situations by writing him little stories to explain what to expect and how to cope. Characters from books helped Benj both understand and invent himself — “Like Chester Cricket, I am musical and I don’t like being looked at!”; “I can be a good friend like Amos is to Boris,” he would say, referring to the mouse and whale in William Steig’s children’s book. And as Benj became more connected to others, more socially adept and more verbally fluent, his extraordinary progress was in large part enabled by his attraction to and facility with the written word.
Nonetheless, I still mourned the loss of reading as an ecstatic act of transport for Benj. As he entered elementary school, his reading was mostly encyclopedias and nonfiction books about sports or space. Stories were uninteresting to him, poetry forgotten — or so we thought.
Ultimately, however, we discovered how profoundly all that early reading and memorizing had shaped him. In a fourth-grade poetry unit, Benj wrote several haunting haikus with images of ice and birch trees, cadences and rhythms straight out of the Frost poems he’d so loved as a young child. Those poems hadn’t been lost to him; they were deep inside him, influencing his sensibility, his vocabulary, his turns of phrase. In the year that followed, Benj began to read fiction voraciously, novels I’d also loved, like “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” and the Oz books. Ten-year-old Benj depicted the value and sanctity of his reading experience in “The Reading Boy,” a poem he wrote as part of a homework assignment:
There once was a boy who was good,
And on a big ladder he stood.
He pulled a small book off the shelf,
And started to read it himself.
The boy enjoyed reading the stories
That were full of excitement and glories.
And after the reading he spent
All his money to buy a play tent
Where he could enjoy a good book
Alone in his own private nook.
Now, four years after he wrote “The Reading Boy,” the effects of Benj’s early poetic reading and memorizing show themselves even more powerfully in the care with which he crafts sentences, his attentiveness to the rhythms in spoken, written and musical language (he’s a gifted classical guitarist and composer), his rich vocabulary.
Reading has been a hugely important skill that has enabled Benj to learn how to have conversations and adapt to his environment. But it has also been a passion that has sustained him on its own terms and for its own sake. I think of Randall Jarrell:
“And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? . . . It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means — that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy and powerful hours of our lives, but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!”
Benj’s reading, then and now, wasn’t merely a means to an end. It was valuable in and of itself. In my mind, Benj’s ability to “read at whim” and love books “for their own sake” may be one of his greatest breakthroughs.
In a culture that too often reduces the value of our actions to where they can get us or what they can do for us, that ardent reading boy remains for me a salutary image of fascination with words and language, savoring beauty and escaping the active, greedy hours of life in quest of something pure, true and good. In the “contemplative and sympathetic hours” of reading, Benj was creating himself. And it strikes me that this carries a truth for our contemporary educational climate. The full value of Benj’s seemingly pointless or impractical reading has become apparent only as he’s grown older. Isn’t it also the case that the promise of the kind of liberal arts education we seem so eager to discount may depend on its being given time to ripen?
Priscilla Gilman is the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”
By Priscilla Gilman
Source: New York Times - http://goo.gl/F2fpb7