Baba, I don’t like my books to have pictures,” my eight-year-old daughter told me the other day, looking up from the pages of Well Done, Secret Seven in which her nose had been buried.
“Oh, why is that?” I asked. “You used to, didn’t you, till recently?”
“But I don’t any more,” Oishi said, with grave emphasis.
“Why don’t you like pictures in your books?” I persisted, my curiosity piqued. (And also accompanied by the familiar stab of anxiety: that's another thing that has changed in her, there's another thing that has happened in her life, and I know nothing about it, I have fallen behind again.)
“When I read, I like to imagine what the characters look like, the places they go to, the things they do. Pictures show you everything. You can’t imagine…”
Oh. Ah. So that was it.
This is one of the things reading is for. We read, the Victorian novelist George Eliot had said, because “art is the nearest thing to life”. What that means, the critic Louis Bayard explains, is that to “approach the mystery of our condition, we have to grasp the mystery by which words make worlds”.
Reading does many things for us, but one of its most important gifts is that it teaches us to see how words make worlds. It encourages our imagination, and our empathy.
What Oishi said struck me even more because of a conversation I’d had with a friend some days ago.
Last week, when I mentioned Richard Yates’s novel, Revolutionary Road, to a friend (I am forever mentioning Revolutionary Road to friends of mine; the writer Richard Ford calls it a “literary-cultural handshake”), he said he had seen only Sam Mendes’s film of the book.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” he told me. “It’s better to watch the film first. If you read the book first and then watch the movie, the film is almost always likely to be a write-off. That's because when you read the book, you are making a film of it inside your head, and then the film that someone else has made of it can hardly ever match up to that.”
The making of worlds with words, see?
This is an adult thing, this realisation of what literature has to give us. We know, close readers, how it works, and learn to appreciate it. But when you see it happening in a child for the first time, it shows the power of books at an atavistic level. For me, as a parent, it’s utterly thrilling.
What my little girl said taught me something else too, something that I was made aware of with a little pinprick of regretful happiness. It showed me that in yet another way, my little girl was not so little any longer; in yet another way, she has become — unknown to me — an adult.