Reading Lessons From A Two Year Old

ESME When I first found out that my sister was pregnant, I knew there were countless pleasures in store. Hot, squirmy cuddles. The DUPLO farm. Jelly.

But above all, I couldn’t wait for the reading. I longed to rediscover the stories I loved as a child, from Each Peach Pear Plum to Pippin and Pod. I wanted to be the one to start her on the adventure of a lifetime, helping her discover for herself the freedom and nourishment to be found between a pair of wipe-clean boards.

What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that, two years and nine months later, it was my niece that would be teaching me. Sure, grown-up literature demands subtlety that a toddler can’t appreciate. But I soon realized that a lifetime of accumulated reading habits had derailed some basic instincts that were still strong in a box-fresh mind. Thanks to Esme, I’ve learnt some sharp lessons about how to be a better reader. Here are five of the best.

Be less forgiving

Kids are ruthless. At an age when the real world is as magical and mysterious as any fictional fantasyland, it takes a seriously compelling story to keep them on your lap. Forget subtle undercurrents and enlightening metaphors; if a book doesn’t hook them quick and deep, they’re off. And although there is much to be said in literature for the difficult and the digressive, I have realized that I am far too accepting of self-indulgent authors. Why shouldn’t a book have backbone as well as beauty? Why do I condemn my own failing attention span rather than a writer’s lack of skill in keeping me hooked?  I have determined to abandon my ridiculous rule of finishing every book I start, ploughing through languorous, critically acclaimed crap that seems to posit that plots are for plebs. There are too many genuinely good novels waiting to be read, and the DUPLO cow is missing again. Priorities have changed.

Read aloud

Why on earth do we stop doing it? As any editor knows, reading aloud is an unbeatable test of quality. Sentences that look fine on the page become claggy in the mouth. Repetitive words and grammatical structures drum an unwelcome rhythm into the listener’s ear. Lapses in pace, clumsy similes and unbelievable dialogue all explode on contact with the air. Conversely, writers who treat their words like notes in a symphony shine anew; step forward, F Scott Fitzgerald and Alice Munro. And the bond created by companionable reading shouldn’t just be reserved for kids. On a torrential Tuscan honeymoon, my husband and I took turns reading Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap during long, misty car journeys and foamy hotel-room baths. Not only did it prevent us from spending our time together but apart, locked into separate fictional worlds, it provided delicious fuel for discussion and speculation over our subsequent pasta and wine.

Move. Laugh. Scream.

Sometimes, an incident or passage in a novel is so shocking, moving or funny you just want to share. The end of Engleby. The opening of Earthly Powers. The rat scene in American Psycho. So why do adult readers sit, silent and tingling, when a two year old would shriek or clap or cry? Well, sure, we don’t want to be thought irritating or insane, especially if we’re on the tube. But in the privacy of our own homes, might we not lose control now and again? Punch the air when Lizzie Bennett tells Catherine de Bourgh where to go? Roll on the floor, weeping and vomiting, at a Dan Brown metaphor? And hell, once in a while, why not let rip in public too? I will never forget the woman I saw sitting in a Soho café, crying with laughter over her copy of collected PG Wodehouse. She made my day.

Re-read

I am a reluctant re-reader. With so many books to read and so little time, it seems positively irresponsible. But I cannot deny that much of the pleasure of Room On The Broom or An Evening At Alfie’s comes from their familiarity, each word turned over and over until the narrative nap is worn soft as silk. This has inspired me to go back and catch up with some old friends - Catch-22 and Madame Bovary are first on the list – but also to take more time over new ones. Children don’t just have favourite books, but favourite pages, too, which they will linger over and stroke. For grown-ups, re-reading arresting lines or paragraphs can reveal complexities and delights skimmed over in the first pass. It’s also a brilliant training for writers, encouraging us to root around for the mechanics beneath the bonnet.

Short is underrated

The recent popularity of doorstop tomes such as Game of ThronesWolf Hall and Dominion, abetted by the rise of the eReader, has somewhat thrown the joys of shorter fiction into the shade. But toddler-length tales provide a welcome reminder that fewer pages can have a disproportionately powerful effect. Apparently, May is Short Story Month in the US. In celebration, Flavorwire has asked a series of acclaimed short story authors to recommend their favourites, and over on Huff Post, Scott Borch has been talking to Random House’s Ann Kingman about why 2013 is ‘the year of the short story.’ I’m on the hunt for my old Chekov collection; what’s more, I might just have a chance of finishing one before the beast wakes up.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.