One day when I was about 8, the library near my house brought in a speaker to get all us kids excited about reading. His main point is something I will never forget for the rest of my life: “Don’t eat a book… Read a book.”
I have no idea what the context was anymore, but fervent bookworm that I was by this point, I brushed it off as a cheesy line for little kids and we all sat down to unleash our inner Da Vinci and enter the library’s bookmark contest. The winning design would be copied and posted all over the library for people to take home. I wanted to win that damn bookmark contest.
At the age of 8, I was really good at drawing killer whales. Like, remarkable killer whale drawing skills, and they were my ticket to victory. I hastily scribbled something about killer whales being apex predators because they read so many books and then drew a gang of whales on the bookmark. It was an obviously transparent excuse to put my drawing skills on display. Just real shoddy work.
Whales looked right, tho.
Anyway, imagine my surprise when they announced the winner. It was designed by my best friend’s older brother, and on the top it said: “Don’t eat a book. Read a book.” It had a drawing of a boy with a book in his mouth.
He didn’t even change the slogan that the old dude just said. He damn sure didn’t draw a pod of orca using complex clicks and echolocation to outsmart a harbor seal. The lifeless eyes of that book-eating boy stared out from the librarian’s desk every time I checked out a book for the next year.
I had all but forgotten about it until two weeks ago. Claire had been having a little more trouble than usual getting to sleep, so we established a concrete bedtime and routine that involved me reading at least two books to her every night. Since then, 8:00pm has been the best part of every single day.
She sits on my lap, inevitably smacking away on the first two fingers on her left hand, and I stare down at the top of her head covered in tiny black hairs like someone stuck a fork into a plate of spaghetti and gave it two good twirls. We read about dinosaurs and ambitious trains and the adventures of little baby birds. The short colorful pages hold her attention and the rhythm of the words calm her down. It would be so wonderful if she weren’t trying to stuff the entire book in her mouth like a crème anglaise macaroon.
When I’m not turning pages, I’m trying to keep Claire from punching, kicking and inhaling the book. The other day she outmuscled me and suctioned her lips to the first page of Pat The Bunny and without thinking I whispered: “Claire, don’t eat a book. Read a book!”
I chuckled. The more I stop her, the more she wants to eat it, and I realized that, actually, this is how she reads. Eating a book and reading a book are not mutually exclusive to a five-month old. Literally through osmosis, she’s learning about the experience of reading by getting a taste for what books feel like, smell like, how they fit in your hand and how each page reveals something brand new. Right now she wants to swallow what lies on that next page. Before long, she’ll want to read it.
Come to think of it, now that I have an infant, “Don’t eat a book, read a book” is actually pretty good advice. At some point she’ll need to learn the difference. For now, though, she should be allowed to do whatever she wants with a book. There is a lot of reading ahead of Claire in her life, but it won’t be long before I’ll pine for the days when all she wanted to do was fit Winnie The Pooh into her face.
Every moment with Claire is a reminder that all things were once new to all people. Whether it’s a hard stare at the Pacific Ocean or her first bite of avocado or the realization that pushing a button on her electronic cow starts “Twinkle twinkle, little star.” Claire knows the important stuff, and right now, the important part about books is that they can be, to a certain extent, eaten. She makes me look at things like we’re both looking at them for the first time, and she makes me want to follow her lead. “Don’t eat a book, read a book” is sensible, but to Claire, it’s over-complicating the issue.
When somebody enjoys something that much, you have to let them have it their way. Maybe I’ll try reading my books a little differently from now on, too. Claire tells me they’re delicious.