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Stories Will Save our Souls, Part I: Unlocking the Joy of Reading

November 13, 2017 by

One day I saw my English teacher pick a book from the shelf, look at the cover, whoosh out an exclamation of joy and wonder, and then hug the book to her heart. Later, I snuck back, pulled out the book, and held it with surprise and awe: it was precious, it was loved, and it had received what I never had – a hug from my English teacher.

Dori holding a stack of books

I’ve learned that books are more than friends. Every day I spend a few hours in our communal library. I perform clerical duties. I repair broken spines and accession new books. I keep the shelves tidy. I chase up overdue returns. I help people find what they are looking for. And, when I think no one is watching, I hug books.

There are few things in this world more sacred and life-preserving than books. In the final pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll beautifully predicts why our future is in good hands if we keep reading. He is speaking about Alice, whose nonsensical story the reader has just enjoyed:

…[S]he would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer day.

I believe that stories can indeed save our souls, and will explain why it is important to share them with others, especially children. Countless people have told me that being read to by a parent or friend was one of their happiest childhood memories. Every child deserves happiness, so what are the details of making this work in reality?

In my next few blog posts I will explore how stories open up an imaginative world unparalleled by any digital medium, and have the ability to teach moral values, ward off evil vices; and ultimately carry an element of humanity this real world cannot match. Our future depends on it!

***

Curtis comes to me after recess each day. He is in sixth grade and big for his age. I know his parents and siblings. He has a healthy and athletic approach to life which means he’s excited about everything from archery to learning the unicycle. He’s a good kid.

Still, Curtis is missing out on a lot. He dislikes reading. He never voluntarily reaches for a book at home, and in school his aversion to reading is making life difficult. While Curtis’s teachers help him with any mechanical issues, I have a simple service: I can listen. For ten minutes each day, Curtis is tasked to read to me. I’ll be the lucky recipient of a good old yarn.

The first day he arrives sweating profusely; he’s just come in from a well-played game. He has The Otterbury Incident by C. Day-Lewis in one hand, and a bookmark in the other. He sighs heavily as we both find seats near a cool sun-lit window.

Curtis begins so rapidly we encounter a task-ending problem immediately. The opening sentence, “Begin at the beginning, go to the end, and there stop – ….” causes so much trouble we find both our heads locked over the page, squinting to see exactly what is written. After Curtis reads haltingly, “Begin at the end, then stop,” he shifts uncomfortably. Unless I too have a copy of the story in hand, our mutual tugging and peering will ultimately kill the book – a proposition enough to make any librarian wince.

There are few things in this world more sacred and life-preserving than books.

Undaunted, we try again. A few sentences later, Curtis is sweating harder than he did at recess. He’s managed a paragraph, but he’s done some amazing things with it. He blitzed through hard words like incident but scrambled little words like and, the, and then. Twice he’s done the impossible: he’s taken a whole sentence and changed the tense – on the first attempt, completely unintentionally.

“Can we stop now?” Curtis exhales loudly and looks me square in the face. We’ve read for four minutes. Our shared situation reminds me vaguely of Jem Finch and Mrs. Dubose in To Kill a Mockingbird. The ticking of the clock is keeping Curtis bravely reading at my side, just as Jem labored to please a cranky Mrs. Dubose. Like Jem, Curtis probably thinks this venture is some form of punishment. He can’t wait to leave.

Here we sit, surrounded on all sides by stories, and Curtis feels frustrated. He might as well be reading an alien language, and we’re both American as apple pie.

With six minutes to spare, we do indeed stop, unable to fulfill the first sentence’s request to “go to the end.” Curtis leaves early, book in one hand, book mark in the other – no need to place the marker due to lack of progress. We’re both floundering now; I’m wondering which of us needs to be thrown a life-line. Curtis struggles to read. I struggle to make sense of his predicament.

Curtis and I live firmly in the real world of sand and sky. The sights and sounds that wash over each of us minute by minute shape our character. Sometimes those waves are wonderful and uplifting, but as I know, and Curtis will learn with age, reality often bombards and intimidates us. Real life does not always wrap us in warm familial love. It is vital at such moments, and throughout life, to tap into the world outside our normal three dimensions. To read a book is to step out, and then be pulled in.

So, we do not sink. The next day is almost identical to the first, with two big exceptions. We both have a book, and we read together. Curtis reads a sentence, and then I do. Mutual concentration keeps our eyes on the page. Curtis relaxes just a tiny little bit, sensing that we are now a team – something athletes usually need.

Curtis labors through a sentence, and then I do, our voices mingling. Together we start this venture with life buoys as real and strong as the fiction unfolding around us. We are comrades, swept along by a story that grows better with every sentence. No disaster reality tosses our way can touch us – we’re floating free.


Check back in a few weeks for part 2, as Dori continues to explore the power of stories and storytelling.

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About the author

Dori Moody holding a cat

Dori Moody

Dori Moody lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in Australia. She and her husband Henry nurture four children, one cat, and...

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  • I loved this account of helping a slower reader to gain confidence. It demonstrated a beautiful acceptance of where both people were at. Love shines through. Beautifully written too. 💐😀.

    Margaret