I have never been totally certain what I wanted to do with myself except that I obviously wanted to read. When I was young and people would ask me to describe my “dream house” I remember enthusiastically listing all the things I would want if I had a house someday—a window seat and a fireplace. A library with a rolling ladder and a front porch and a hammock in the backyard (FYI, I have literally none of those things)—and it was only a few years ago that it suddenly dawned on me is that I wasn’t really describing a dream house, I was literally just listing a bunch of places that I wanted to curl up and read. (By “it suddenly dawned on me” I mean I had a friend who went, “So does this house have like a kitchen or bathrooms or anything?)
I gave birth to my son in late February and every December I have a holiday gathering at which a specific friend of mine always asks if there were any great books I had read that year and if he could borrow them. And I had done it for a few years and each year he would ask and I would go, “This was great and this was great…” and pull them off the shelves. And the year my son was born I remember seeing him scan the shelves before turning to me and going, “Hey, am I crazy or are these all the same books as last year?”
And I remember thinking, “Of course not! Obviously I’ve read stuff this year, I just can’t remember exactly what,” but the more I thought about it the more I realized that yes, I had read things that year. I had read a book about how to get your child to sleep through the night. I had read articles about breast feeding vs. bottle feeding. I had read some essays on how kids develop and eventually learn and I had read message board after message board about how to get your kid to eat when your kid won’t eat. (Consensus: Just jump out a window, screaming.)
And books? Oh, I had read tons of books! Many were by this fabulous up-and-coming author named Richard Scarry who is basically the David Foster Wallace of old-timey, anthropomorphic bears. Many were by the lovely Sandra Boynton—the unsung Naomi Klein of frumpily drawn cows. I read Goodnight Moon until my eyes were ready to fall out and I know exactly where the Wild Things are because I memorized their exact positions. Friends were setting themselves reading challenges to get through a book a week and I was like, “Hey, not to brag but I literally read about FIFTEEN BOOKS A DAY.”
But of the things I like to read? I had read nothing. Having a newborn had been the equivalent of taking an incredibly hard course in college only with (if it can be believed) even less sleep. It meant that I read a lot of textbooks on a subject I needed to learn quickly, but didn’t have much time for reading anything I wanted to read. And by “anything I wanted to read” I mean literally anything that was not about having a baby.
And when all I read about was how to care for a baby, all I learned about was how to care for a baby. WHICH IS GREAT, OBVIOUSLY, BECAUSE I HAD A BABY AND FIGURED OUT HOW TO CARE FOR IT. LET’S NOT DOWNPLAY THAT, PLEASE. But which was terrible because I would get together with friends and they would go, “Hey, did you know about this interesting/terrifying/important thing that happened in the world?” and I would go, “No, sorry, I’ve been washing feces out of socks.”
So I made a new year’s resolution. For the next year I need to read one real book a month. Not a little Golden Book. Not something about having a kid. Not a Times article about how children emotionally grow, although I could read those too if I felt like it. But one book a month about something I wanted to read about.
I started off reading a book about container ships. Don’t ask why. It was face out in the bookstore and looked interesting. (It was.) I read an amazing book of short stories. I read a memoir and a book about gut bacteria and a book about war and a book about feminism. I read two books about comedy. I read a book about extinction and a book about the food industry and, incredulously, an entire Russian novel. I read something about Homo Sapiens and a book about dying.
And it felt weird at first because none of these things felt related to my life. My life was waking up this weird baby that I was only starting to get to know. And giving it food and disposing of its fecal waste and, when it cried, trying to understand why it was crying. And do you know what won’t help you figure out why your 11 month-old is crying? Books about gut bacteria and container ships. Because even if they’re incredibly interesting and well-written they have nothing to do with your life.
Except that everything has a little bit to do with your life, if you broaden your view of your life. A lot of the things that you buy for your baby probably arrive on container ships. And birth methods and breast feeding may affect your child’s gut bacteria, which, in many ways, may affect their health. And even if it is not currently a pressing issue when your child is still eating pennies off the floor, you will absolutely want to teach them about feminism and war and extinction and the things that are happening to the planet on which they live. You will want them to understand the food industry and appreciate well-told stories and keep a sense of humor about the world. They are one of billions of Homo Sapiens on the planet and we will all die eventually. I’m not sure how the Russian Novel is relevant but damned if I wasn’t proud of myself for making it through Gogol’s “Dead Souls” when I could’ve been ordering forest-themed wall decals from Land of Nod.
The first year I made the resolution to read a book a month I made it through 14 books in the year. The following year I hit 22. I am starting my third year of resolutions and, going into February, am starting my fifth book of 2016. After that first, awkward year of adjusting to having a child, I am starting to feel like myself again. It’s important to help him become whatever person he’ll turn out to be, but it doesn’t hurt to allow myself to continue pursuing whatever person I’ll become. Reading re-kindled my enthusiasm for the world, even if I’m not reading with any goal in mind. I don’t have any grand plan for myself and I don’t have any grandiose ideas for my son, but hey– the day he walks into my room with a glint in his eye and says, “Don’t want to bother you, but I had a bunch of questions about international shipping routes and gut bacteria,” I’ll be able to say, “Let’s talk, buddy. I’ve been waiting for this.”
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If you enjoyed the post, please follow The Ugly Volvo on Facebook or Twitter or scroll down to the bottom of the page and sign up to follow the blog. If you have any great book recommendations and/or ideas for how to read when there’s a toddler walking through the house yodeling, leave them in the comments. And if you’re just really dying to read books about having children, I have one that’ll be published this fall.