Last year I stopped reading to my eldest daughter.
Ruby had turned seven. She was a competent and independent reader. Did she really need to hear my voice telling stories of dorks and treehouses and farts? I was tired of it. Ruby was the eldest of three. My middle child was just learning to read and needed me more, I reasoned.
Ruby and I were done with reading to each other, or at least I thought we were. In August this year, things changed.
Every day, I receive an email from The Conversation, rounding up the latest news and research from Australian academics. On August 28, there was a story quoting new research out of Western Australia. More than one third of 6–11 year olds said their parents had stopped reading to them, even though they wanted it to continue. They were disappointed it ended, and just to fully stoke my fire of mother-guilt the researchers also pointed to the myriad of cognitive benefits of such shared reading experiences.
How could I have forgotten? Mine was a childhood of reading that began with my parents and our well-stocked bookshelf. I have distinct memories of staying up too late to finish a chapter, and the ever-present books that accompanied me on long car trips, with my parents occasionally telling me to ‘get your nose out of that book, and talk’ when I was particularly obsessed.
In those days, I had two sets of friends, my real ones at school and the fictional ones I met up with at bedtime—Mildred Hubble, Moon-Face, Charlie Bucket, the Fossil sisters, Anne Shirley, and Trixie Belden. To me, it didn’t really matter if the character was a witch or a ballerina, an amateur detective or a moon with a body. All that mattered was that they took me to a different place. The word genre didn’t even exist in my vocabulary. Story, character and setting were everything to me.
Thirty years on, little has changed in terms of my passion for reading. What has changed is the technology. To my own slight shame, I own a Kindle, though I rationalise this by spending more, overall, on books than in my pre-Kindle days. Also, nothing beats shopping for books from your own bed. At any time of day or night, Amazon is always awake and ready to suggest what I should read next. If I read a crime thriller, Amazon recommends I read ten more. If I read a book on writing, it suggests a plethora of other titles to help improve my prose. If I read a romance, I’ll be confronted by swathes of shirtless men eager for me to flip open their metaphorical covers.
Of course, Jeff Bezos is not the only one to assume that to be an adult necessitates a narrowing of one’s interests. Publishers talk about target markets as if readers exist in silos, never to cross from one to the other. Even writers tend to stick to their genres, partly out of fear that an audience will not follow them into a new one.
This is not me. My reading interests today are as eclectic as they were when I was a child, and I suspect the same can be said for many, many readers.
A quick scan of my electronic library reveals that in the last month, I have read three books from entirely different genres. The first was The Mummy Bloggers, a fabulous commercial title from Holly Wainwright who, thanks to her day job as Mamamia’s head of content, has a wonderfully entertaining writing style. Think of it as the literary equivalent of fairy floss.
From here, I moved onto And Fire Came Down. Written by Australia’s Emma Viskic, it’s the follow-up to the multi-award winning, Resurrection Bay, which introduced the reading public to Caleb Zelic, the deaf-since-childhood private eye. To continue the culinary metaphor, this book was much more a deep, dark chocolate. Like the best 90% cacao, Viskic delivers an intriguing bitter sweetness. It’s crime, but not as we know it.
Just to thoroughly confuse the Amazon algorithm, I’m now onto the Miles Franklin winner, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, which is a delicious hazelnut torte, textured and layered, and somehow just a little bit good for you.
Now, Amazon is telling me my next book should be either George Saunders’ Man Booker prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo, or Rachael Johns’ The Greatest Gift. Perhaps it has come to understand that a reader cannot survive solely on a diet of fairy floss nor hazelnut torte alone. In reading, as in food, variety is key, though it must be said that books are always a form of dessert to me.
I’m also reading again to Ruby, for mummy-guilt is a wasted emotion unless you actually act on it. After that article in The Conversation, I went online and bought a few of the children’s classics that I remembered reading as a child in the vague hope she would find them as entrancing as I had. Also, maybe I would be more inclined to read to her if the actual material was of interest to me too?
We have started with Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Every night, I read her a few pages just before bed. We talk about the strange words and phrases of early 20th century British English, what it means for a child to be ‘a scream’, how greasepaint is a different kind of make-up to Max Factor and why a frock is really just a dress.
Slowly but surely, she is getting to know my childhood friends, the Fossil sisters, the three most wonderful orphans who determine from a young age that the key to freedom is establishing their financial independence, though this overarching message is not quite as interesting to Ruby as the actual pounds and shillings they earn from performing onstage. You mean they have real jobs?
The idea blows her little mind. Kids that actually pay their own way. To her, it’s a different reality, a new way of being in the world.
And isn’t that the point, after all, of reading?
Cassie Hamer is a Sydney-based writer (and reader) whose short fiction has been published in several anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories 2017. Read more of her writing at: Cassie Hamer.com