Pay It Forward

There are so many new stories to enter, I thought as I pulled another book off my stack. It seemed a shame to sleep.

A couple of years ago, when I fell in love with my brother’s children, I began reading again. I had been raised as a bookworm, a child who read at restaurants, who dove back into books during television commercials, who read by streetlights when we drove in the car at night. Then I grew up, studied literature and writing, and by the end of it all, I could scarcely look at a book.But then I began visiting my brother and his family several times a year. They live back East, along with the rest of my family. Each visit, I would be astounded by how much the children had grown. Sarah could suddenly walk and even attended singing class. Joe was too big to be carried anymore. He can now write his name, although the “J” is backwards. And they both love books.”Read to me,” they say, holding a book out as if it were the greatest prize in the world. Sometimes there are dueling stories, one adult in the house reading to one child, another reading to the other until the final pages are turned, and the children cry out, “Again!” and we start over.

And whenever I had a spare moment during those early visits, I began to read again on my own. I had the time. After the children went to bed, my brother–the TV watcher in the family–liked to surf between CNN, the weather channel, and hockey: hardly competition for the printed page, as far as I was concerned. And since I stayed up later than the rest of the household, I would lie back on the living-room couch that served as my bed, and I would escape into one of the books I had brought from home. The pull was palpable. It all came back to me–that feeling I enjoyed as a child of being transported into a text, and the tremendous sadness of turning the final page and having to leave that world behind. But there are so many new stories to enter, I thought as I pulled another book off my stack. It seemed a shame to sleep.

On these trips, I became a book matchmaker. Part of it was pure practicality. I had no intention of lugging all these books back home with me on the plane. But the other part was that it felt like my own quirky mission. I loved these books. I didn’t want them to sit on a shelf, never to be opened again. So my godmother, the one willing to discuss her feelings, got first dibs on the Oprah books. My sister-in-law, the intellectual who kept her maiden name, was offered any novel with a feminist bent. My father, who loves to tell me his childhood stories, got all the sentimental tales of Midwestern life. My stepmother, the aspiring writer, received the most ambitious prose. I offered my brother anything that had to do with sports or history. My older sister and her music-fanatic husband were first in line for the rock ‘n’ roll biographies. And my mother received a grab bag–anything that smelled of gossip and lightheartedness and then the ones the others had rejected.

“Try this,” I told her, handing her a volume my brother had dismissed, the memoir of a failed pitcher. “He ended up marrying Meg Ryan’s mom.”Admittedly, it’s an unusual way to spend a vacation–no nightlife except what’s printed on the pages. When I return home, I relay reports to loved ones on how the children have grown and what books I read. There’s an occasional trip to a museum and outings to the park, but it’s mostly intensive Seuss in the daytime and more adult fare at night. It is not material that translates well to a postcard. But I write it all down, a record of what I have read and what I thought of it. So, years from now, if I ever choose to look, I will know that when the snowstorm hit in December 2000, I read a Nick Tosches anthology and marveled at its unevenness.Sometimes I’m astonished by the power that a book can have over me. For example, on this last trip, I began reading one of my forgotten childhood favorites, C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, to Joe. One evening, Joe handed me the book with the page turned to Chapter 3. As I read aloud with him on my lap, I quickly became caught up in the events of the story. The King and the Unicorn are taken away as prisoners. The Talking Beasts of Narnia are put into slavery. The Ape tells the Narnians that this is what Aslan commanded. A donkey wearing a lion’s skin masquerades as their leader. What would become of them all? But once I finished the chapter, Joe didn’t ask me to continue. He felt poorly, and went right to bed.

The following morning when my sister-in-law Gretchen took his temperature, she promptly bundled him up and they left to see the doctor. I read the Berenstain Bears to Sarah and delighted in her company. Yet I longed for Lewis.

Later on that day, when Joe and Gretchen returned with the medicine, I asked Joe if he would like to hear more of the story. He said he’d prefer to draw on the computer.

“My mom read it to me on the bus today,” he explained as he sat down in front of the screen and maneuvered the mouse. I felt a keen disappointment in the pit of my stomach. “Really?” I asked, trying to sound casual. “So what happened?”

He shrugged and returned to his drawing.

I went out to the kitchen where Gretchen was making coffee. “Just tell me,” I demanded, “if Aslan has shown up yet.”By the end of a trip, I always know my reading days are coming to a close. The last book is slower going. My eyes begin to tire. I forget characters’ names and plot points. I begin to skim.On this last visit, when it came time to say good-bye to my brother and his family, I told Joe, “The next time I see you, I’ll bet you’ll be reading.”

He looked startled and then pleased. Many times during this trip, he had told me, “I want to read.” He could sound words out now and identify characters’ names on a page. I watched him open books and stare at the text, as if willing the words to tell him their names. But now my prediction had left him speechless. He blushed and his eyes widened as he privately contemplated his wondrous future.

My father drove me back to the airport. We hadn’t had much time together during this trip, and the drive gave us a chance to talk. When we arrived at the airport, I suggested that he park and wait with me at the gate. I still had fifty more pages to read in the latest Joyce Carol Oates. It was perhaps not the best fit for my father, but they both had Princeton ties. He could have a cup of coffee there. When I finished the book I could hand it off to him before I boarded the plane. He looked at me as if I were mildly insane and then declined.

“Is her prose still hyperbolic?” he asked.

“I would call it brilliant,” I said and gave him a hug before heading off with my book again.

I finished the book at the gate and left it under a chair, hopefully for the right person to find. The woman who ended up sitting next to me on the plane came on board carrying Ahab’s Wife, a book I have come close to purchasing several times. I wished I had held onto the Oates just a few moments longer. I imagined she would have liked it.

On the plane, I watched Autumn in New York with Winona Ryder and Richard Gere. A sure sign, I thought, as I settled back to watch the melodrama unfold on the tiny screen, of mental exhaustion after running a literary marathon. At home, I knew, I would go back to my regular routine of perusing online newspapers early in the morning and late at night, and leafing through magazines on buses as I made my way to work. I wouldn’t pick up another book again for weeks.

But as time goes on, I find myself picking up books and sticking them in my travel bag. Or I step inside a bookstore and see treasures just waiting to be opened, and it feels physically hard to leave the store without them.

Soon, I promise myself.

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