When my daughter was about seven months old, I read her the first section of Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. I had been reading EJ large sections of books since the day after she was born, when I started right in with the opening chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird. If the nurses in the hospital looked at me funny while I did my best Scout Finch for the sleeping infant in my arms, I didn’t notice. Happiness (and exhaustion) will do that to you, will blind you like that.
McCann’s book is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve had to buy it three times now, having given it away to multiple friends after telling them, with the rambling, inarticulate passion of a junkie trying to describe his drug of choice, why it’s so life-changing. I can’t quit it; anytime I feel like my own writing lacks artfulness and depth, I return to McCann’s sentences for a fix. His portrait of a handful of people in New York City in 1974, on the summer day when Philippe Petit strung a tightrope across the tops of the twin towers and walked out among the clouds, is so inspiring to me, I get chills just thinking about it. And so, while it’s true that I was reading the book to EJ because I wanted to turn her into a language drug addict in her own right, my aims weren’t altogether so pure—I also wanted to hear the novel’s sentences out loud for myself, in the hope that the next time I could steal away forty-five minutes to sit down at the keyboard, the gorgeous and gritty style of those lines might somehow work its way into my sentences, as if by diffusion.
I was nearing the end of the section entitled “All Respects to Heaven, I Like It Here” when (spoiler alert) I got to the part where the narrator, Ciaran, is describing the car crash that killed his brother. Corrigan, his brother, an Irish Jesuit priest living in the Bronx projects, is driving up the FDR with a prostitute named Jazzlyn. EJ is sitting next to me on her play mat on the floor of our condo in Chicago. She’s tapping at a stuffed owl that dangles from the arch above her. She’s content. I start to read the following lines:
I think now of Corrigan gripping the steering wheel, frightened, his eyes large and tender, while Jazzlyn beside him screamed, and her body tightened, her neck tensed, it all flashing in front of her—her short vicious life—and the van skidded on the dry roadway, hit a car, hit a newspaper truck, and then smashed headlong into the guardrail at the edge of the highway, and Jazzlyn went head-first through the windshield, no safety belt, a body already on the way to heaven.
I’m only about halfway through the paragraph when I start to cry. EJ’s so little, but she’s looking up at me with this severely intelligent face, and there’s something that passes between her eyes and her mouth, a sort of weather, like a cloud rolling fast over a landscape, as if she senses there’s something wrong with me and she’s trying to figure out what it is, because my low voice is crumbling now, it’s lost its ability to rise and fall over the words, and I’m wiping at my eyes and reading just a short bit further, to a line about Jazzlyn “smashed in a crumpled heap by the guardrail, one foot bent in the air as if stepping upwards,” and that’s the one, with its interplay off the earlier phrase “a body already on the way to heaven,” that just crushes me, the one that finally—like that guardrail against the careening van—brings my reading to a stop and launches my wet gaze into EJ’s searching eyes.
I hugged my baby. I told her that it was wild, how a bunch of symbols on a page could make me imagine such a thing, and yet that’s why words have power—they can inspire, they can elevate, they can tear down, they can hurt. From the play mat, EJ had stopped tapping at the stuffed owl and her neighbor friend the squirrel, and was listening to me, or so it seemed. While she hadn’t yet acquired any words of her own (aside from the suggestion of what I hoped was Da-da) and therefore she understood few if any of my words on a cognitive level, I got the sense, from her bright and unwavering eye contact, that she knew that my words mattered. She knew that what I was saying was important. She knew—I think, I hope—that I cared about her.
Dr. Pamela High, the author of a 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics policy paper that recommends reading aloud to young children “beginning in infancy,” claims that “babies understand the emotion in the words that are being read to them very, very early.” She goes on to say that babies can benefit from having just about anything read to them, from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare. So while it’s not rocket science that parents should be reading to their kids to help foster language development, it’s refreshing for me to hear from an expert that my approach, half-selfish as it may have been—of shifting gears from fuzzy touch-and-feel board books with one word per page to 350-page novels about the complexities of love and social class in a metropolis—was a decent one. I don’t care how good a person is with kids; there are only so many times in a given day you can point to an image of a cat and say meow before you start to go insane. It’s good to mix it up.
Now, at the time of my writing, EJ is seventeen months old. A number of people, upon finding out her age, have said to us, “Wow, she talks a lot!” or “She has a lot of words!” (Her current favorite utterances, to name just a few: baby, sweep, piano, tutu, and eat.) My wife will often smile and respond with a comment like, “That’s what happens when your dad is an English teacher.” I smile at this too, and sometimes even allow myself a brief moment of pride, thinking that for all my worries about our daughter and the world we’re trying to help her grow into, we’re doing something right. And while it would be more accurate to say that I was an English teacher, since I’m not employed to teach right now, I suppose my wife is right in putting that part of me in the present tense. I’m always going to be an English teacher in that I’m always going to love sharing words with people. Not surprisingly, my daughter is my favorite student.
Colum McCann, in talking about writing in tandem with the challenge of being an optimist, says something that I absolutely love: “a good novel can be a doorstop to despair.” He goes on to say that “the real bravery comes with those who are prepared to go through that door and look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.” I love this because it simultaneously speaks to what my favorite writers do and why their work is worth our time as readers. I’m with McCann in celebrating the courage, the empathy, the “open door” of writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose ideas about the danger of a single story continue to be pivotal for me as I grow as a reader, a writer, and most importantly, as a father.
There are countless stories converging upon us every day: in the news feeds on our phones, in our schools or workplaces or homes, in our most private of thoughts and memories. Considering the ugliness in some of these, such as the hunger for power and the utter lack of morals so apparent in today’s politicians, it can be hard not to despair. I think we need to listen closer for the stories that shake us up the most—the ones, ugly and beautiful, we can actually feel like weather in our bodies—and then share them and talk about them with the people we love. And the people we don’t.
Our kids are going to walk into their own versions of despair some day. It kills me to imagine this, but when my daughter walks through that door, I might not be there to hold her hand. She’s going to need something to hold onto in dark times. Maybe it will be buried deep inside her: a narrative that privileges what binds us together as a people, instead of what tears us apart.